'Crowned' by Sheila Armstrong


Have you ever seen a rat king? They aren’t very common, really. Some say they dont even exist; that they are only a tale told in the night, a story told to explain away the scratchings in the walls. But I have seen one, and I can tell you that they do. I never minded rats, before. But now they scratch at the insides of my skull.

So I’ll tell you a story.

Imagine you are born, blind and pink and squirming, in a hole in the dark, dark, dark. Your brothers and sisters are there, too, just as blind and squirming. Your mother has given birth to you and left. Perhaps she met a hungry dog, or a spinning black tyre, or left for brighter days.

And so you squirm, with your brothers and sisters, in the dark. You whip your tails and shit yourself and feed on tears. And you grow.

And one day, you lift your nose and smell a stray gust and decide it is time to stretch those four legs of yours, time to leave your den and face the world. So you move towards the light.

But no-

You are stuck. Your tail has wound its way around tail around tail and around tail. The filth of the earth and the filth of your bodies has caked the knots, locking each tiny noose closed, creating a tangle that will not pull out. 

You are the Gordian knot.

You hiss and scratch at your brothers and sisters, hiss and scratch and they pull away. Each rat-link pulls in a different direction, straining to break free of the bundle of crazed, frothing animals. But you are trapped. You and all your brothers and sisters are trapped, alone in the dark. Writhing and screaming. You will turn on each other when the hunger becomes too much; tearing chunks of of your neighbour, yourself, the earth, anything to fill the void.

But you are trapped. In the dark. But not alone, never alone.

And that is a rat king.

I found mine in the wood pile when I was sent to collect timber for the evening. It had been cold and my hands were raw with splinters and shards of dead-wood. I tore down towers of logs and forked mounds of hay, and filled my wheelbarrow too high.

And so I finally came on the squealing, squirming mass. The rat king.

Each rat was blind. Each rat screamed for death, for the end of suffering. I wondered, though, if they were truly separate beings, or just one bundle of thought; with scores of legs and teeth and ears. Were they many, or were they one? I did not know.

The sun was setting. It was growing colder and the light had faded even in the few short minutes I stood idle. I picked up my pitchfork again.

I crowned my rat king with a halo of hay, took my wheelbarrow to the hill-crest, and went inside for dinner.

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