By James Shackell
I knew him as Mr. Saturday, but I doubt that was his real name. His hair was matted and filthy, and fell in long streaks around his face. The nose that protruded from the grime was always in motion; twitching and sniffing the air. But everyone agreed it was the eyes that did it. Small, beady little things that lay sheltered under dark bushy eyebrows. He’d been catching rats as long as my dad could remember.
He carried an odd weapon. It was a wooden pole, about eight feet long. At the end was fixed a small set of metal jaws. A thin wire ran down the length of the pole to a trigger. Saturday had showed me once, showed me how he could open the jaws, forcing the springs back, and then, quick as lightening, press the trigger and snap the trap.
“This is an old weapon,” he said. “It’s part of history. I got it from my master who got it from his. All the way, back and back.”
I was always impressed by his stories. He used to sit with me on the stairs after the kill; “giving me some learning” was how he put it.
“Rats is noble beasts,” he told me once. “They aren’t like mice, filthy horrid things. Rats have class.”
“But aren’t they dirty?” I asked him.
“Dirty?!” he said. “Dirty, boy? Is that what they’re teaching you these days?” The eyebrows twitched alarmingly. “Rats is nothing of the sort. Rats lick themselves clean. Why, a rat’s coat is his pride and his honour. You mark my words.”
He spoke of rats as if they were a worthy opponent. He had fought them in cellars and down drains; caught them on rooftops and in kitchens, or so he told me. I believed him.
I was never allowed to watch him do it. That was the thing. My father would invite him inside, lead him down into the cellar or the kitchen or wherever we’d seen a rat. Then Saturday would very politely close the door behind him and go to work. He told me once that his eyes had adjusted to the dark, and that he no longer needed light to see by.
It came as a surprise one day when he asked me to join him.
“I need some help,” he said solemnly, as if the admission cost him greatly. “I need some help with the rats in your cellar.”
I didn’t know what to say. He seemed on edge, nervous even. I’d never seen him nervous. Always he’d walk into the house, dirty leather trench coat swishing behind him, as dignified as Napoleon.
“What do I need to do?” I asked.
He looked uncomfortable under the scrutiny, and shifted his weight.
“Just watch,” he said cryptically, “I need someone to observe.”
This was the information that he seemed willing to divulge. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, pulled on my overcoat and an old beanie, made for the door, then turned and grabbed a pen-knife from next to my bed. Once it was in my pocket I jogged back down the stairs.
“Good lad,” said Saturday.
He crept stealthily towards the cellar door. Like most old houses it was set under the main staircase. It was a dank and dusty place, that cellar, and I used to avoid it. Cobwebs grew thick in the crannies and the flickering light from the solitary bulb didn’t do much to penetrate the gloom. I watched as he opened the door and went in. He didn’t bother with the light switch and was quickly swallowed by the darkness. My curiosity overcame my fear, and cautiously I followed him.
Down we went, along countless stairs and corridors. Sometimes I could swear I felt a breeze blowing through the shadows, but then it was gone, and the stillness returned. I could just make out the shape of his hunched back, scurrying ahead of me, the silhouette of his pole-trap swaying back and forth. I followed closely. How horrible, I thought, to be stuck down here, wandering the caverns until you slowly go mad.
He was an observant companion.
“See those droppings?” He told me, pointing to a corner. I couldn’t see anything but nodded obediently. “That means we’re getting close. I reckon we’re only a few days away now.”
Our food ran out on the fourth day, and we were reduced to scavenging amongst the shadows. Saturday found an old can of tuna, which must have been left down here when my parents first moved in. I used my pen-knife to hack it open, but the fish inside had turned dry and inedible. Hunger slowly wormed its way into my mind and I began to believe we would never make it out. We would die down there, cold and alone, and my parents would never know what happened.
On the sixth day, or it might have been the seventh, it was hard to tell, he stopped suddenly; so suddenly that I bumped into the back of him.
“Shhh!” He said, “can’t you hear them?”
I shut my eyes and strained to hear anything. There was nothing. The sounds of dust falling slowly, merging into pools; the tiny susurrations of wood growing and contracting. There was nothing. But wait! There! Yes, there! I could hear it now. Footfalls. Many of them; thousands. Padding quietly and with purpose. A faint chittering echoed among the corridors.
I felt Saturday tense ahead of me. He hefted his pole.
“They are coming,” he said.
I drew my pen-knife and felt a little better. Surely rats were nothing to fear. Rats were vermin, small and insignificant. Saturday had shown me carcasses back upstairs, in the real world. It had looked so sad and pathetic; like it’d been robbed of something.
Now I could make out movement ahead. The walls and floor seemed to be writhing, moving towards us in a small furry tide. Rats bubbled to the surface of the mass and then were sucked down, swarmed over by thousands of the colleagues, all running, jumping, scrabbling forward.
Saturday turned to me. My eyes had long ago become accustomed to the gloom and I could make out his face. He looked younger then, and infinitely sad.
“Blood calls for blood, my lad,” he said.
I didn’t understand, and was about to reply, when he turned his back on me and walked slowly towards the oncoming horde. As he approached them he sped up, jogging then running as fast as he could. The run turned into a lope, and then he was on all fours, bounding towards the rats.
They must have sensed their prey was near because, as one, they let out a great hiss which filled the cavern. Saturday answered with a cry and dove into their ranks. They swarmed over him; a writhing, seething, bubbling carpet. The ones who had been scurrying over the walls and ceiling leapt through the air to land on the struggling ocean of furry bodies.
I stood, horrified, watching the scene. Something in me refused to believe it. This was happening to someone else, in another time. If I wanted to, I could turn around and the door back home would be seven feet away, just up the stairs. If I turned now I bet I could still see the light.
Eventually the rats stopped moving. There was nothing on the ground to indicate where Mr. Saturday had been. No clothes, no bones, no equipment. Nothing.
The rats turned towards me. A thousand pairs of tiny eyes focussing on this new intruder. I wondered then what they wanted. If there was something I could do to save myself. I raised the pen-knife smoothly, but they must have smelt my fear. Saturday had told me they could do that. They looked at me, and in that moment I felt connected to them. They were so alien, like things from another time or place. They seemed to be waiting for something, some gesture.
I lowered my knife.
I don’t know what made them turn. I watched the furry tide scurry back into the shadows, into the farthest corners of their underground empire.
Then I saw the pole.
It was lying off to the side; I guess it had been thrown clear of the body. I walked over and picked it up. It was heavier then it looked; an old pole, he’d said, part of history. My grip tightened on it, the only solid thing in a changing world.
And I set off, into the crowding gloom.
James Shackell is a writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, New York Times, Yahoo Travel and Melbourne Weekly. Check out more of his work at jamesshackell.com or follow his travels on Instagram at @j.shack.
Featured image via Alexey Krasavin.