Leezie was a good strong girl and would have had no trouble getting a decent hard-working sailor for a husband, but she hadn’t felt the need for one and besides, she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to burden themselves with the bringing up of a string of brawling brats. Bah! she thought to herself. Some girls will sell their freedom for a silk scarf and a whiff of patchouli.
Her mother had left her the family farm with its little stone cottage and mossy old well, it’s poultry runs, wort yards, bee-hives, pigsty and cow barn and the broad sunny nettle field. She made herb teas and flower wines and brewed a kind of herbal mead in her big airy kitchen, sold soap, eggs, cheese and butter once a week at the market and flowers, herbs and fruit and veg in the town, and in the evenings she spun the nettle fibres into stout thread for rope and sailcloth.
She didn’t get lonely, even in the long summer evenings when other farm families round about sat chatting and making music far into the night, because all the while she talked in her head and sometimes out loud to the animals. She chatted with the cats, discussed the finer points of dogma with the dogs, and chided the mice and sparrows when they stole from the hens in the mornings. She communed with the cows, talked with the plants and fairies, remonstrated with foxes and hawks and complimented the rabbits on the beauty of their whiskers. She told the bees everything, hiding nothing from them and she chortled and gossiped with the poultry and wild birds without distinction. No, she was never lonely.
She was not rich but it was a good fertile farm and she did quite well enough most of the time, so she was quite content, or would have been, had it not been for the rats. The two cats, Midnight the jet black and Twilight the smoky grey, kept the mouse population stabilised at a low level. Thomas the terrier did a fair job with the rats, presenting her with a sleek dead specimen once or twice a week, which kept the remaining few quiet at least for a while, but then they’d come back just as bad as ever. The mice were all right – they left surfaces clean enough, and it was only when they nested in the furniture that they really became a nuisance. But the rats were filthy beasts, and she hated them.
The cottage was old and made of natural stone laid dry with the gaps plugged with mud and moss which the rats could easily scrape away, so no sooner did she plug up one hole than two or three others would appear. It didn’t matter how spotlessly clean everything was before she went to bed, when she woke up she was sure to find some disgusting mess made by rats. Even if they couldn’t break into the cupboards and chests, you could see where they’d been trying to by their teeth marks in the wood. Even if you could see no marks, you could smell the nasty, ratty smell when you came downstairs. It made her ashamed and embarrassed about asking people in.
She’d tried poison, but it was a nasty business and they were always only gone for a week or two and the new ones were always worse than the old ones, because they hadn’t yet given up trying to break into the flour and would start in with great enthusiasm, leaving deeper grooves than ever in the wood and more of their filth all around where they’d been working.
And she’d tried traps, which were more effective than the terrier, culling all the stupid rats in no time, so that only the smart ones survived to breed, which of course they did prodigiously within a very few weeks. The resulting smart rats psyched her into forgetting to set traps and managed the terrier as a kind of tame predator, throwing him his occasional prey somewhat condescendingly as time went by, pruning their genome for optimal rat effectiveness and happiness.
And they remained filthy, bickering, snitchy-snarly, smirking, grinning beasts with no morals, no manners and no aesthetic values, though the mothers are said to be loving enough, at least while the babes are young and helpless. Perhaps they spoil them. They should certainly teach them humility.
It was while thinking thoughts like this and knitting a nettle dishcloth by the fireside one cold afternoon in autumn, while perhaps five or six fine young nearly full-grown rats were scampering in the storeroom and up above in the rafters and up on top of the cupboards and behind them, that she heaved a sigh, rested her work on her knees and said to the boldest rat, who was finding fallen grains of wheat in the gaps between the flagstones, ‘Oh you are a fine rat, sir!’ Because after all, one should always be polite and look for the best in one’s fellow creatures.
Now, there were usually about five or six at a time, rarely more, since the litters would disperse fairly rapidly, driven out by their snarling parents and ill-natured stronger siblings. There’d be a big male and two or three breeding females, which were usually pregnant or hidden away with a young litter or proudly bringing out a finished brood.
This one was one of the big males, and a civilised enough rat he seemed on first sight. Indeed, his coat was glossy as silver over a soft, velvety grey-brown, his paws clean and elegant, his ears tidy, his nose sensitive and finely drawn. His lips were only slightly curled in contempt. His whiskers were clean and beautifully groomed, and his perfect little fingers were tented under his chin as if he wished to speak. He had stopped a few paces from where she sat, handy to the door in case he needed to exit in a hurry.
At her words he cupped an ear and listened a long time after she’d finished, as if waiting for the words to waft their way in a leisurely way over to him, and gave a little nod and a sweet pleased grin as he caught, held and savoured the word ‘fine’ and appreciated its meaning, mouthing it precisely to himself.
‘If only you didn’t leave such a mess,’ she continued, not even noticing that he had spoken. ‘We could all live together here in harmonious content. You’d be as delightful as squirrels or rabbits or any other small furry animal. Why do you have to foul everything and leave filth wherever you go?’
She wasn’t expecting an answer and had actually taken up her knitting again when it came – a hoarse, slightly hissy, outraged whisper, just at her right ear, as if the rat sat there and not on the floor, saying ‘We hate you!’ She looked up, surprised that the rat was still there. He was still in the same place near the door, not on her shoulder, and his expressive little eyes were hard and angry.
Now it was Leezie who listened amazed while the meaning registered, and mouthed that angry little word to herself to feel the full emotional flavour of it. ‘Hate’.
‘Well, i’ve never much liked you,’ said Leezie after a long, slow time of thinking. ‘Nobody does. You’ve got filthy habits and you stink the place up – much worse than mice. I’m sure you could be cleaner if you tried.’
‘Dainty as a kitten, if i tried,’ the rat agreed.
‘Well, why don’t you?’
‘We’ve explained over and over,’ said the rat, flexing his whiskers.
‘I’ve only ever heard squeaking and snarling and bragging from any of you.’
‘We told you,’ said the rat, ‘in… stench. In roaring, shrieking, text-rich, sensitively detailed, totally articulate, operatically eloquent, quintessentially consummate perfect miracles of stench, illustrated in nervy, fraught visual arrangements of variegated grunge pointed up with pithy pellets of filth. But then you’re illiterate, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am as far as that goes,’ she said, with a quick involuntary shake of her head, because while the rat had been speaking, she’d let her head begin to elongate and taper towards her nose, which was fast becoming velvety and sensitive. It was the twitching of her stiff little whiskers that alerted her. She was starting to shapeshift! But yes, she’d begun to appreciate, symphonic indeed the stench, but still unintelligible to her. ‘You’ll have to tell me in words.’
‘Well, it’s not my natural medium, but I’ll try. This is a farm. Every day the animals get fed. Cow gets fed, pigs get fed, ducks get fed, chooks get fed, geese get fed, cats get fed, dog gets fed, rabbits get fed, you even plant stuff for the bees. And the plants get fed. Passers-by get fed. You get fed. You’ve even got a bird-feeder for feeding the birds. It’s rat-proof, of course. Well now who does that leave? In this whole delicately balanced farm ecology, who don’t get fed, who have to steal everything they get like low, despicable thieves, slandered and reviled wherever they go? One guess. Dead right – us!’
Well, he’d had his speak and he’d made himself clear. He smoothed his whiskers with both paws.
‘Why can’t you get your own food? You’re a wild animal.’
‘I’m a farm rat. We’re domestic. We’ve always shared with pigs, pilfered from poultry, taken the odd egg, got into the milk and feed, and raised our litters in luxury and grandeur. But now you rat-proof everything. I can’t get into the brewery any more. Even the compost bin is rat-proof. If you could you’d even rat-proof the whole cottage – i’ve seen you try. A rat can do beetles and grubs for just so long…’
Leezie sat deep in thought for a long moment, and then said, ‘All right, what are your terms?’
‘Muesli, same as you, every morning, enough for six rats, all sorts of grains and seeds, nice honey, sweet, raisins, lovely crunchy nuts, fresh milk all over it. Mmm. It’d be no trouble at all making two bowls instead of one. Then we won’t have to gnaw your cupboards and chests to let you know how hungry we are. We’d be nice as anything.’ He smiled sweetly, thinking about how good he’d feel. ‘it would keep us healthy too, and you know there’s nothing so unhygienic or likely to generate disease as a population of sick, starving small furry mammals…’
‘Muesli, that’s breakfast. What about dinner and tea?’
‘No, we can forage for that – and clean up your insect pests, grubs and snail eggs. Fallen fruit, nuts, dead things, stuff lying about rotting. Mmmm scrumptious. And you won’t begrudge us the occasional egg, or a bit of bacon rind now and then.’
‘All right then, anything else?’
‘Revile no more the rat. We’ll give you a year’s probation and if we get fair courtesy, kind words and muesli, we won’t have to roar so loud in stench.’ He stiffened his whiskers again, giving them a little shiver of finality.
Leezie was about to ask one last question, but at that point, the dog came in and the rats were gone with a rattle and a clatter. The rest of the evening was uneventful.
Over the next few days she asked everyone she knew what they thought of rats and it’s true, everyone without exception loathed the poor rat. She was quite shocked. ‘Zooks, hadn’t it suffered with us through plagues and misfortunes and been our loyal companion in times of plenty too? Hadn’t we sailed the seven seas together, bold and hearty through all the deadly dangers of the cruel sea?’ She seemed to feel his urgent little spirit still sitting on her shoulder, and to almost hear his outraged whispering as she had during their close encounter.
And meanwhile, she kept her part of the bargain and the rats got a nice bowl of warm muesli every morning for breakfast. It certainly kept them out of the larder. And they kept their word. She woke every morning to a clean, sweet-smelling kitchen, and not a trace of the rat dirt of yore.
And they lived in peace and mutual goodwill together ever after.