Free Rat

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Fiction

FREE RAT by Julie Jones

Ahoy! Ahoy! 

Which means: Salutations and well met, I honor the rat within you. 

Sailors, not comprehending the meaning but mimicking the sound, stole our word. My ancestors considered it fair trade for passage to new worlds. Free rats, they were, spending starry nights perfecting their feats of derring-do, racing over the rigging of mighty sloops. 

Centuries of great days. Such loveliness, the Plague. 

But times change.

Ahoy.

None say that now but the yellow cartoon, C. Montgomery Burns. Ahoy Hoy? is how he answers his phone when Homer Simpson calls in sick. Our sacred salute brought lower than the keel of a ship.

No sloops for us now. No hand-twisted three-strand ropes on which to race. Just row upon row of clear acrylic cages, bitter with the reek of our piss.

Periodically, to ensure all is shipshape, the white coats study the effect of cage size correlated to rat density. 160 cm2/rat. 6 rats/cage. All of us running squared laps. This causes some amount of “incidental die-off” due to stress, malnutrition, overcrowding-induced rat-on-rat aggression, or, more often, some combination of the three, but once the study is over, the white coats “dispose of” the surviving rats. Dissect us. Weigh our hearts to measure our wellbeing.

The heart of a rat allowed to feast upon Ste. Gertrude’s moon is rumored to have topped .9 grams. The heart of a lab rat fed nutritional pellets weighs barely half that. My father’s weighed next to nothing when he was disposed of. 

Heaven is a sloop sailing low in the water, swarming with rats, under a full moon. 

Roger Wanderveek was my father named, though the white coats called him CR55.290.31B. He had diabetes. 

Do you believe in kismet? 

Father believed in luck.

Both share a K. One begins. One ends. K. The symbol created by Phoenicians, storied sailors they were, to represent the sound that begins the word kaph. Hand. 

Hands to lay rope. Hands to coil it. Hands to hoist it, knot it, splice it.

Hands are with what the white coats grip us. Hands hold scalpels and syringes.

hand /hænd/ noun 1. a paw with a thumb; 2. a crew member of a ship; 3. physical or spiritual assistance, as in “to lend a hand.” Origin: from Gothic frahinϸan, “to take captive,” and Proto-Indo-European kent, “to grasp.”

The night after father was disposed of, pirates from a ship called Peta raided the lab. They grasped us with gauntleted fists, smashed us into dark duffels, apparently not having the time to be gentle. At first, I suspected the hand of Ste. Gertrude at work, but the pirates did not board us onto sloops. Nay. They spliced apart our kin groups easy as DNA ropes; held us hostage in cages bound for different coasts. 

Ahoy! was what I said to the woman who paid my ransom. I hated her on sight, but Ste. Gertrude teaches that luck favors the polite. 

Which means: good things await those who are kind to humans.

Luck the white coats have not once attempted to splice into our genomic code, though opioid addiction is popular. Cancer, too. Emphysema. Cirrhosis of the liver. With humans we share over 97% of our DNA. Kismet is cruel, resigned rats say.

There are three methods of lab rat disposal: chemical injection, decapitation, asphyxiation. The first two are as uncommon as they are inefficient, but carbon dioxide can gas a thousand rats at one go. 

When a drug trial ends, we have a song that carries through the walls of our clear acrylic cages: Cheeka Hoy Eeka Eek, followed by the rat’s name. 

Which means: Alas, so-and-so has fallen in the hands of the white coats and woe unto to those who live in these unlucky days sans Plague.

The white coats think Cheeka Hoy Eeka Eek is all we are capable of saying. It is all we ever say. Yet despite their compulsion toward the design of studies, never have they studied rat speak. Nonsensical, they think, since they can’t grasp our meaning. Jack up the volume to drown out our keening. Ahoy Hoy! Mr. Burns screams from the security guard’s TV. 

I couldn’t yet believe the blasphemy father had proclaimed just before the white coats ferried him to his fate. Ste. Gertrude, he alleged, was unworthy the conviction of my faith. She had never lent any rat a helping hand. Nay. Just look, he said, to the tail of her name. Rude. She had poisoned our moon.

Dear Father, I pray, may Ste. Gertrude fill the sails of your heart and ferry you to Her Holy Sloop. 

Luck, father once said, is whatever you can grab by the tail. 

Can the thumbless clasp with claws? I asked.

The act of grabbing utilizes the four thenar muscles of a human thumb. Three of those muscles comprise the thenar eminence, that bulge within the palm of a hand coiled high with the abductor pollicis, opponens pollicis, and flexor pollicis brevis. The fourth muscle, the adductor pollicis, spans the thenar web between thumb and index finger like sidestay rigging. 

My life has been rigged with a mutation in gene TPH2 on chromosome 12q21, bequeathing me with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

The woman who paid my ransom is named Carly. She lives in a studio apartment, proportionately smaller to her than my cage is to me. With a bulging forehead and beaked nose, she resembles Mr. Burns, but other than that, she is like all other humans: primates with thumbs.

In the 6 million years since the chimpanzee–human last-common-ancestor lived, the strand of DNA known as HACNS1 has undergone the most evolutionary change. It is responsible for the derring-do of the human thumb. Some white coats theorize that it was the all-mighty thumb that led to humans walking on two feet. Standing upright instead of on all fours, their hands were freed from the chore of mobility to the penultimate animal achievement: tool creation and usage, favorites of which include scalpels and syringes.

Father told me that every rat has to make her own luck. Bite it off with her teeth if she must. 

The teeth of a rat never stop growing. Harder than iron, they are designed for gnawing, the friction of which keeps their size in perfect proportion to our ears, obeying the golden ratio of ∅ = (1 + √5)/2. Our jaws can exert a pressure equaling 12 tons/inch2. We can easily chew through your bones, your heart, your face.

Carly seemed to love me, until I bit her that once.

She liked to feed me sweets, little crumbs of cookie. 

During the Plague, on the floor of her cathedral, Ste. Gertrude fed her rats the moon: great round plates of soft brie.

Carly would hold a butter cookie high as the moon and say, Up Spot, Up! 

“Spot” is the name she gave me, as if my life began the moment she met me. I had been on display in a pet store, which is where humans purchase mammals that walk on all fours. “Spot” she named me, for she assumed that I was a he and not a lady rat of some maturity. But “Spot” recalled to mind black buboes of Plague. This gladdened my heart and lessened my shame. 

Kosette my father called me, a term of endearment which means “little one.”

The white coats called me 694A.031, but can never remember such a moniker. Without anesthesia, they stapled a tag with their designation to my ear. Ahoy Hoy! Mr. Burns drowned out my squealing.

Have I mentioned the forced breeding?

Aloft would Carly hold a crumb and say Up Spot. Up! She wanted me to rise up on my hind legs. She wanted me to beg. 

Praise to some is their reason for living. Rats trained to obey, salivating at a friendly face. Praise, to me, seems a botoxed beast with bleached teeth for all one must surrender in trade. I give a crumb of my soul for a pat on the head and too soon you’ve eaten my whole cookie.

Up, Spot. Up! 

Nay, I say. 

Yet long have we lab rats, rattus norvegicus to be exact, been prized by humans for our tractability. 

tractable /træktəbl/ adjective 1. easily manipulated, controlled, or taught; 2. amenable to suggestion. Origin: from the Latin tractare, “to handle,” and tractabilis, that which “may be touched.”

Up, Spot? Pretty please

So sweetly she begged me to obey.

Good boy, Spot! Good boy!

I was touched by her praise.

The white coats say nothing when they type my lab results into their spreadsheets. 

Up, Spot, Up!

I perfected the feat quite quickly. 

Next, she enticed me to a blue plastic wheel she’d installed inside my cage and spun on its axis in demonstration. I forsook it at first, but she was crafty, laying a trail of crumbs that lured me to its cradle. 

I set one front paw upon its rim and sniffed. A bit of cookie sat within, just out of reach from my teeth. I brought up my other front paw and stretched forward, causing the wheel to sway from side to side, feeling, I knew instantly, like the sway of rigging onboard a ship. I leaped in and snatched the crumb, but the wheel rotated in kind, prompting another step from me, and then another, spinning the wheel faster and faster, forcing me to trot then canter until it was a blur of sky and water and I was racing over the ocean, racing with my ancestors, racing upon the rigging of a mighty sloop! Ahoy! I called out. Ahoy!

Good boy! Carly cried, clapping her hands. Good boy!

Here is a study never done: measuring the capacity of a rat heart to love.

Of human fingers, the thumb’s carpometacarpal joint has the most freedom, capable of 80˚ pronation, 40˚ abduction, and 50˚ flexion in relation to an axis passing through the second and third carpometacarpal joints. Opposing the four other fingers, it can bend toward and away from the palm, spin and rotate on the trapezium. It is exactly this oppositional nature, combined with the strength of the thenar muscles, that grace a hand with its two standard grips. The power grip is used for brute strength, for grabbing and squeezing like a vice. The precision grip is used for fine motor control, for dissecting with a scalpel or injecting with a syringe. 

The white coats squeeze me tight and say, Hush now, little one. This won’t hurt.

I learned too well the trick Carly had taught me. When she left for work, I slept through the day, but upon her return, with the moon shining into my cage, I would race through the night, her perfect pet rat, singing a shanty I’d composed with a catchy refrain. Bleeka Hoy Fleeka Eek! 

Which means: The sailing life is fun and free so won’t you come and join me!

As I ran, I imagined the crumbs that awaited me. I imagined her clapping and cheering.

The Human Oath must surely align with the oppositional nature of the hand’s design: thumbs cocked against all other life.

Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Rodentia, Superfamily: Muroidea, Family: Muridae, Genus: Rattus.

Rodents comprise over 40% of all mammalian species, with over 8 billion rats currently living. Primate species, to which humans belong, comprise only 5%. Perhaps this explains their oppositional stance toward us, retribution for our reminder of their genetic insignificance. What better way to dispose of our so-called excess than to force us to lend them a hand, conscript our lives into the service of humankind. That’s a word I don’t like. Splicing a lie into their type.

Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Primates, Family: Hominidae, Tribe: Hominini, Genus: Homo. 

We’re all the same till Order sets in, then they get primitive. 

Tonight Carly screamed at me. Can you just stop running?! Can you just quit with all that damned squeaking?! She wrenched me out of my wheel and squeezed. 

Perhaps she knew not the strength of her own hand, nor the tensile limits of my ribcage. 

Father, just before he was gassed en masse with thousands of other post-trial rats, said that he knew my faith in Ste. Gertrude had carried me through many a moonless night, but I had always overlooked the most salient fact of her life: she was not our saint. During the Plague, she’d fed our kith and kin great plates of brie not to grant us sanctuary, nor to enlarge our hearts’ capacity. Nay. With a variation of the precision grip, she had sprinkled our cheese with arsenic. 

betray /bi’trei/ verb 1. to abandon or forsake; 2. to deliver to an enemy by treachery. Origin: from the Latin tradere, to “hand over.”

Carly grasped me tight in her hand and squeezed, an unkind corset to punish my crime: being the rat I’d been bred to be. Racing on blue wheel as she’d trained me. 

Symptoms of heartbreak include nausea, headache, and blinding white rage.

The Rat Oath is legendary. It goes like this: Cheeky Cheeky Rattus.

Which means: I, Rattus, do solemnly swear to protect Rattus, to honor Rattus, to love Rattus above all else, from this night and for all nights, for so long as my teeth shall grow.

My teeth obeyed their oath before I could blink. They sunk deep into the flesh of Carly’s thenar web, nicking her princeps pollicis artery, releasing into my mouth a sudden propulsive fluid force of 1.6 cm2/sec. My tongue made quick friends with her jam. 13.1 mmol/L of sugar to be exact.

Human and rat blood are remarkably similar. Both have a normal pH averaging 7.40. Carly had surely benefited from the life of my father. To those with diabetes he’d lent a hand, but had Carly ever offered her praise? Had any white coat ever said, Good boy, CR55.290.31B? 

Good boy, Father.

One well-designed study would demonstrate what all rats know. When a heart breaks, the entire body tenses against the blow as if it’s been slammed against a wall. The torso constricts so tight that the nerves roping between the ribs become pinched, a condition properly diagnosed as “intercostal neuralgia,” but more commonly known as “chest wall pain.” Your lungs are squeezed. You can’t breathe. This decreases the level of oxygen in the blood, increasing the level of carbon dioxide, turning the blood acidic; turning the blood bitter. 

Carly opens her fist and flings her arm about, a topmast tilting in a hurricane, trying to be rid of me. But I squeeze tight with my teeth, my body snapping like a flag as bits of my life flash through my brain on bolts of lightning. Finally, with her free hand, she rips me away, but I retain a keepsake: a bloody crumb from her thumb’s sidestay rigging. It smacks of freedom, the most bittersweet flavor for all one must surrender in trade. 

She slams me hard against the wall of her cage.

Dizzy, I escape. I find my way to port and board the first ship I see. 

Traveling at 24 knots, a white ruff of seafoam pushes up the prow of the Monaco Maersk as she plows through the water beneath the sun, the stars, the moon. One of the biggest container ships ever built, she once set a record for the largest load capacity in her class with 19,284 twenty-foot intermodal containers stacked, putting my ancestors’ sloops to shame.

But times change.

The Monaco Maersk is a floating cage naked of rigging on which I would race. Her two-stroke engine drones night and day. The crew is small in proportion to her size. Most hands monitor the machines. Others steer the course. A few bake cookies. None hoist sails nor say Ahoy

Worse, there is no mischief of rats onboard. Not even the ghost of an ancestor. 

Is the Holy Sloop a lie, too? Just like the love of Ste. Gertrude?

My only company is overhead, at night, when The Rat performs her astral feats of derring-do. Three hours after sunset, I look for the line of her tail drawn by the stars Almach, Mirach, and Alpheratz. A triangle formed by Sheat, Matar, and Sadalbari connects her tail to her body. Shoulder peak, Gienah. Feet, Enif. The Delphinus cluster marks the whiskers upon her cheek. Brightest of all, agleam for her teeth, Altair never stops glowing. 

Above deck, with a crick in my neck, whiskers briny with a stiff rime of wind-dried tears, I realize I am no longer a lab rat, or a pet rat. I am a free rat, excepting, of course, for the kinks in my DNA, my propensity to stand on hind legs and beg, the bitterness in my blood, the thumb prints on my heart, and my habit of seeing the world through the frame of human hands. 

I miss blue wheel. 

I don’t know what to do without Ste. Gertrude.

Father once said that life is learning to lay a three-strand rope, kismet and luck twisting so tight they can’t be spliced. 

But what of the third strand? I asked. 

The third strand, he said, is what gives a rope its strength: the courage to attack life with the conviction of one’s oath.

courage /kər-ij/ noun 1. tenacity or perseverance; 2. confidence that sustains; 3. spunk. Origin: from Proto-Indo-European kerd, “heart.”

Below deck, amid bunks, while the ship’s hands are sleeping, I cock my heart away from thumbs and sink my stars into their feet. Though, at first, it seems rude, though none taste so sweet as Carly, cheered on by The Rat, I persevere in my gnawing. The crew responds in kind, slamming me into the bulkhead … how many times? But I have discovered a reason for living that is worth every concussion received. Gnawing through toes, stalking the posterior tibial artery. Below deck, amid bunks, I bring these hands to their knees.


Photo by Andrew Arch, used and adapted under CC.

About The Author

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Julie Jones’s work has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Cincinnati Review: miCRo, and Burningword Literary Journal, among others. Her microfiction has been nominated for Best Microfiction and Best of the Net. You can find her at juliemjones.com.