Ratcatcher

Issue #100

The stone blocks lie tumbled and bollixy on the blasted earth and black moss covers them like scabs.  I push my head a hair’s-breadth further out my crusty hole and flare my nostrils and sniff.  Mossy trees and rotting ferns and stagnant water.  No oil or coal or smoke.  Good.

“Come on out then.  Lively like,”  I hiss, and scuttle into the open.  Moonlight casts pools of black shadow and clouds scud low.

Ashera scrambles after me, eyes squinting and clearly painful and darting looks here and here and here.  Like a sparrow in a roomful of cats.

The dark clouds press down on my back like the threat of a butcher’s cleaver low and poised and ready and I tremble all shook up and skin tingling as if my clothes have been set aflame.  “Hsst, then.  Follow step for step, my darling daughter.  You will be safe.”

So we check my lines and traps and I am not called Ratcatcher in idle folly.  I bait their lairs with gobbets of rotten meat or peanut mash though there is no excess of the latter what with the general scarcity and the great number of yaps to feed.

My beautiful daughter steps lightly and surely after me and holds the lines and does not shirk from the killing and skinning, and I save their internal parts what is foul eating for people but quite usable for bait.  My traps are clever constructions with no clockwork, of course, but they take a large slice of time with pliers and wire and a good candle for the close-in work and my eyes may not be what they used to be, but I am accomplished.

We spend the night in a most productive and enjoyable way and by the time the light grows in the east and we have to make for one of my hidey holes, we have recovered two score rats and their skins hang off my belt in a thick gray mass and their meat is salted and wrapped and kept close-in and safe near my belly.

My safe hole is dug in under a mound of stone and shattered wood and chips of colored glass that I fancy used to be a church.  But I was quite young and the memory has been turned and worked so often in my brain that the edges are worn smooth and I am most sure that what remains bears little resemblance to what actually passed.

But it is what I have and often a truth can be constructed from nothing but spiderwebs and moonshine anyway.  I make a tiny fire from the store of wood I keep tucked away in the hole.  The safe comfort of the earth drives me half mad with its closeness and oppressive dank and dark and roots and mud and I long to feel as safe and comfortable out of doors, but that is wasted thought.

So I skewer half a dozen rats and soon the smell of roasting makes my mouth juices come on very strong and I have salt and mint leaves and a potato the size of my fist and an onion so ripe and pungent my eyes and nose stream and my whole face swims with anticipation.

Ashera shows interest in my hazy recollections of the tall spire and the great mass of people all dressed in clothes so clean they sparkled in the colored light which fell through the room like giant spears of red and gold and green and blue and the cunning clockworks imbued with song so sweet you would swoon just hearing one short note, and she listens rapt with her head tilted sideways.  But she is more desirous of those other marbles of memory that are polished to a high glossy sheen.

“Tell me about my ma.”  She licks the grease off her fingers.  “Tell me about when you first laid eyes on her across the room.  How you were smitten.”  Her eyes glow yellow in the firelight.

So I do.  The trade delegation from the Highlands with wool and thick warm sweaters and smooth planks of honey-colored hardwood had traveled a great long way and we were lucky to have them as we lived close in under the shadow.  One member of their party had yellow eyes like fire and some laughed at me for they thought she was old and not so pleasing to the eye, but they lacked discernment, for she was smart and funny and lively and would not take an unfairness lying down or suffer a pontificating fool or see a hurt she did not wish to balm.  

She was named Emma and was an angel in my eyes and I laughed at my mates who were so blind and thick and we danced and told each other the little stories we all have growing up and it did not matter and we kissed and her lips were soft and her teeth were sharp.

We were married by the end of the week and the highlanders went back to their cold mountain fasts richer with salt and salmon and metal scavenge but poorer by one and the trade seemed overweighted in our favor to me but Emma laughed and said she was no trade at all and that she were a free person and not a piece of furniture to be exchanged on a whim for a tub of butter.  She kissed me again.

Ashera’s eyes have closed and her light steady breathing shows that she has drifted off to slumberland and my thoughts turn darker for those days had been so sweet and short and like a dream where you wake all reluctant and try to roll over and fall back but you can’t and you can’t and you can’t and you have to wake up.

There are clankers and buzzers out during the bright hours of the day.  Clockworks doing their impenetrable workings but the hidey hole is safe and I much desire to drink myself into blackness with a flask of the grog I trade for with One-Arm Jelly.  Good fermentation of berries or potatoes and he boils and boils and captures the essence with twists of copper line I scavenge for him.

But I have my daughter with me and a man cannot live who loses his daughter due to insensibility or slowness of reaction and I have left the juice at home in a safe place.  I shiver and sweat all day long and the sound of the clankers makes my blood boil with fury and despair and that is a most helpless kind of combination.

In the evening, we break our fast with some johnnycakes made from weevily cornmeal and water and we pick out what bugs we can, but the whole is spotted with black dots and after a time our hunger overtakes our fastidiousness and we fire the cakes on a hot rock and eat them with a handful of dried apples and it fills my belly.

We check lines all night long zig-zag up the hill behind the rubble that once was a church, and the results are worse than spotty with most traps sprung and nothing but clumps of gray fur and I reach the top of the rise in a foul sour mood and much wanting a taste of grog to take the edge off.

We are well disguised and not visible even though the morning sun is up, and we take cover in a stand of vine maple and blackberry that makes the going thorny and very discomfortable but I believe it is a price well worth paying.  I sit down on a rock and my beautiful daughter sits next to me and the radiance of her presence tries to melt my sourness, but I look out over the bay and my stomach twists and the foul mood comes rushing back like a storm.

Tall black smokestacks rake the bottoms of the clouds like evil fingers and thick black smoke boils from the clockwork factories in noxious dark billows, and Ashera grows very quiet and still for she has never laid eyes on the factories before.  My hands shake like palsy and I want my grog with such a fierce desire that I find I have bit the inside of my cheek and the hot salty taste of blood fills my mouth.

I should say there are times I ache to drink myself into a stupor and lie down on the tracks of a clockwork train or to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the water or leap from the bluff onto the sharp jumble of rocks below, for I wake often in the dark hole we call home and it might be the middle of the night or it might well be high noon and we insensible to such fundamental knowledge.

But there is my beautiful daughter and in her eyes I see her mother and she plays games in the holes in the ground and she cries and she laughs and she wants her belly filled with food and her mind stuffed with stories and how could I ever leave her? 

Sometimes in the blackest of my moods I toy with such a terrible notion that it leaves my bowels runny and I think about filling her pockets with rocks too and the both of us wading into the bay and I get up and I pace and I drink and I push those foul thoughts into the deepest hole in my mind that I can find.

I am too old.

Ashera stares at the smokestacks and the slag piles and the buzzers that flit about like demented bats and the scars of tracks cutting through the earth across the water.  There are no trees, no touch of green, no pool of water that is not fouled with poison, no leaves to provide much needed balm to the eye.

“They took your mother.”  My jaw clenches.  Ashera knows this, knows this story though its edges are still rough for I never tell it unless my mood is something foul.  “She went for a walk.  Said she were going half mad holed up under the earth.  Asked how we could stand it.  Said she was not a worm nor mole nor crawling thing to live so long under the earth.”

Ashera’s eyes shine and her jaw clenches but she does not cry and does not turn from me, and she is her mother’s daughter and she is strong.

I crumble a dirt clod with the rough planes of my calloused fingers.  “You were four years old.  A regular hellion.  Your mother said she would take a walk.  Said I could watch you.  Said she would not be gone long.”

 There is a pause.  “Why do they take us?”  Ashera’s hand finds mine and she clutches my fingers hard.  “What do they want?”

I shrug.  One-Arm Jelly was taken years and years ago and he escaped and he tells stories late when the children are asleep.  Tales of clockworks clanking and whirring around his cage and wheels and hair-thin gears spinning in their heads and bright colored buttons and sometimes pushing the red button brought pain in great shocking bursts and made him writhe and twist and lose control of his bowels and other times red brought food in packets still warm to touch.

Blue and yellow buttons and mazes and shots and tests and pain and pain and pain.

Jelly scavenged a blade and one night he sawed off his own hand to work free from the steel bonds the clockworks had him in and he tied off the wrist to staunch the flow of his bright red blood and he made his way free, but he lost the arm due to rot and he’s very handy and can tie off a line with his teeth or work his remaining fingers so fast and quick I’d swear he had the full complement.

But I tell Ashera that I don’t know for sure. And that is the truth, but sometimes what is true can be a lie.  What I do know and have told her over and over is that the clankers set traps for us.  Bright shiny new things that you see lying in fields are not to be touched.  The clankers wait and listen for the snap and clack of the steel trap that swings shut around the hapless person and that is all and they are taken and they are gone.

I think about the church and about the big clean people all fat and well fed and with their dainty nails trimmed and talking about God and the devil, and nowadays I do not believe in either one, but I am a damn sight sure there is more evidence for the latter.

But again, I do not share all these sour thoughts with my daughter and instead we watch the smoke billow out across the water and the sparks from hidden forges glow on the undersides of clouds and we make our bed in the center of a grand old bramble thicket and sleep.

The moon lights our path back and it is much faster both because we travel downhill and because we do not stop and zig and zag to check the lines.  Ashera does not speak much but I know she thinks of smokestacks and traps and I hope she does not know about the buttons and the shocks but there are no secrets under the ground and I am sure she does know anyway and I am sure her mind turns sour and dark like mine.

It rains again next evening and I am glad not only because the clankers do not seem to prefer the rain, but also because my mood is so black and foul that had it been sweet and nice out I would have felt compelled to be even blacker to compensate.

We walk all night and I am very tired and weighted down with the near four-score rat skins and meat we’ve harvested and my feet are soaked on account of the puddles and ditches and creeks we must slog through.  Daylight steals our cover and we are not near as far as I would like and I walk faster.

Ashera is a stalwart and does not whine or complain though I can see that she is very worn out as well and I think she is getting to be a big girl and it is almost seven years since the clankers have stolen her mother.

Those thoughts rattle around in my brainbox and I want a nip of grog even worse than yesterday and to tell the truth I want more than a nip, but then we round a hillock and there is Billy Boy.

“Well, hi, Ratcatcher,” says he and I grunt and I do not think much on Billy Boy because he is a no-account ignorant blowhard and he is all puffed up on his own self and thinks that young people and himself in particular know better, and so all I do is grunt and keep walking and thinking how could the day get worse?  “Hello to you, too, Ashera,” says he.  “You are looking mighty fine.”

So I stop and I want to hit him but I can see he is prepared for that eventuality and I don’t give him the pleasure and besides I am tired and weighed down.  “What are you doing above ground, Billy Boy?”

He puffs up even more than usual and he says his name is not Billy any longer and that he has taken a new name and that name is Reiver and he looks proud and excited and dangerous.

I shrug.  “Could be Billy or Reiver or Wet-behind-the-ears or even Wipe-the-shit-off-your-arse because I have done that for you, you know?”  I have my skinning knife in my pocket and the blade is very sharp.

He laughs, a fake-sounding bray that makes the skin on the back of my neck crawl what with us being outside and daylight and clankers about, but he steps back.  “No need to get your dander up, old man.  I simply came to escort you back home and to tell Ashera the good news.”

“What good news?” I say and I have no doubt the words will not sound good in my ears.

“Why, that I chose Ashera.”  Billy nearly bursts from puffing himself up.  “As my name-day mate.”

I want to strike him down and the picture of him lying at my feet bleeding his life blood into the mud is strong and I think I have already done it, but I hold and hold and hold.  I do not want Ashera to see such a terrible sight and besides my position in the tribe is precarious in the extreme and I cannot afford to make enemies of Billy Boy’s family and friends and so I hold though my hand clenches the hilt of my knife so hard my fingers tingle.

“Good news,” he says again.

“Congratulations on your new name,” I choke out.  “We will talk on your offer though Ashera is still quite young.”  I turn to my daughter and in that moment I see the woman she is becoming and I do want her to know love and I do, but not now and she is not ready and not with Billy and my heart near stops.

Ashera’s eyes are white all around the edges, very skittish and she speaks breathless.  “I don’t want to marry.”

My hand clenches on the knife.  “That is one thing your mother taught us, is not that the truth?”  I let go of my knife and slap Billy Boy on the shoulder.  “Women are free people and not sticks of furniture, eh?”  Billy starts to argue, but I chivvy him forward on the path.  “We should not be flapping our yaps what with clankers about, don’t you know?”  I tap the side of my nose and it were not a lie either for I smell their dirty smoke and their exhaust and a flake of soot lands on my cheek.

We make good time and I keep an ear out and both eyes scanning left and right and behind.  Billy must have sensed it somewhat through his dense skull as well, for he steps up his pace and we come out of a tangle of thick hazelnut brush and there in a clearing lies a fine shiny new mirror in a wrought-iron frame all gilt and flash and perched pretty-as-you-please on a patch of grass.

I stop and grab Ashera’s arm.  “Ssst.”  The mirror reflects the clouds and the sky and looks like a deep pool of gray water.

She freezes, but Billy Boy saunters forward like the mirror is already his very own and all he has to do is pick it up and he will become king of the world.  Clanker tracks litter the clearing and their spoor seems thick and close.

“Ssst,” I say again, but Billy Boy scoops the mirror off the grass and leaps sideways in one smooth motion and he is far too slow.  Steel bars spring from the ground, and in a great clanging clatter and ripping of earth he is caught.

He grabs the bars and he screams and I can see the learning reach his brain too late and he shouts my name, but I turn and scoop Ashera into my arms and I run for cover as fast as my legs can go and my heart rattles in my throat and fires the blood in my veins.

I throw myself into the center of the hazelnuts, careless of the impact of branches as they whip my face and body.  Ashera whimpers but is quiet at my touch and we crouch in the mud and watch, eyes wide, wide, wide with terror.

The clanker hoves into view over the trees tall as the church spire in my memory and red lights blink on its dull metal body and huge pincher arms move with jerks and hissings of steam and coal smoke pours thick and black from the boiler on its back and fills the clearing with a noxious reek, and I shiver in the marrow my bones and I am sure I am close to a trip to Hell.

The cage swings into the air depending on a hook caught by one of the pincher arms and Billy Boy screams high and frantic like a cat with a crushed tail and in no way sounds human.  The clanker turns and turns and then lumbers away and the ground stops shaking and a crow calls and it is gone.

I discover that I have pissed myself and I feel old and oppressed by the sky above me, but I am in no way ashamed because whoever has not been that close to a clanker is like a child nattering on about subjects they do not comprehend.

Ashera had curled in a ball next to my leg and she does not move and so we stay there and shiver until the daylight fades and the dark and cold and blackness of night is solid and the moon is gone and I leave the rat meat wrapped well and buried for protection and I carry my beautiful daughter home to our hole in the ground.

Billy’s service is somber though no one calls it a funeral especially me and it is threaded with hints of accusations from his kin and family who have more sense than Billy and know my probable reaction to his marriage plans, but it does not amount to much as Ashera tells her part of the story in a thin, flat voice that leaves me cold and hating the mushroom faces that surround us.

Jelly plies me with free grog after and I drink and drink like it is a job of work to fill the holes inside of me.

The next week goes by in a blur.  Jelly trades for the skins and I drink and drink and piss and eat and drink.  Ashera sleeps and sleeps and then seems back to before and is all smiles and sunshine, but she does not ask for stories about her ma anymore.  Not a one.

Jelly is the only only other old one besides me who remembers times before the tinker boys made clockwork this and clockwork that and clockworks got all smart and refused to be servants any longer, and he and I used to trade stories of the world without clankers, but I find I have no stomach for that any longer and Jelly gets sour and bars his door to me and the grog gets low and then gets gone.

I can not stand the stink of me and I punch Billy’s brother for no good reason and his family wants a punishment on me and I bluster and shout and they show me the steel of their knives and my head pounds and my hands shake and I am weak and filled with cowardice.  Billy’s family is eager to cause me hurt and Jelly and the rest of the mushroom faces are flat and cold to my sight and I have no choice and I must leave, and it tears at me inside to go without saying goodbye to my sweet daughter but I do not want her to see me so low.

Jelly says he will look after Ashera and I leave and go upside again even though it is day.  I am not banished forever, but it is clear I should stay gone for a good long while.  White puffy clouds fill the sky like a flock of foolish sheep and I wade into the river and sit naked and shivering while the sun dries my clothes and my mood is especially dark.

I wander west and south, staying in my hidey holes and I scavenge and check the lines, but my heart is not in it and I snap my finger in one of my own traps and it hurts fierce and sharp and blood fills the skin under the nail and it turns purple and throbs.  First time I have ever caught my own self.

That is where I start a new tack.  Used to be, I’d catch clanker spoor and go the exact opposite direction for who in their right mind would want to tangle with a clanker?  But I guess that shows I am not in any sort of right mind and maybe that is so and maybe not but to me my mind feels as sharp and clear as ice.

I scout and roam farther south and west than ever before and I head right around the great curve of the bay towards the clankers and their evil-smelling factories and their foul trains, and I dig hidey holes and make stashes of wood and rat jerky and all the necessary kaboodle to keep a body alive.

Clanker traps litter the terrain the closer around the bay I forge.  Vats of peanut mash and barrels of fish and shiny mirrors and suits of clothes.  I study their traps and use my shovel and a steel pole to probe the ground.  I load up with a chisel and hammer and pliers and pry bars till I can hardly take a step and have no room for rat skins or extra meat.

I scavenge a line of braided steel cable and fashion a grapple hook for the ends.  The clanker traps are simple enough things though very well made and sure to work.  Spring-loaded and all of a piece and every one the same.  Lift the bait and slam-bam-snick and the clankers have got you.

At last the winter ends and daffydills and crocus and tulips thrust up out of the mud and though some days it blows ice-cold rain sideways other days it dawns clear and soft and I weep at the beauty for it is too much and my heart is still black and hard like a withered nut and I wonder if the mushroom faces have let my daughter see the spring and I weep because the beauty slides off me like yellow butter off a hot rock.

I trip forty-three clanker traps and I feel driven like the traps are jugs of grog and while I am doing one I have no thought but of the next I would do.  I poke my pole at a vat of peanut mash or I hook a suit with my grapple and the spring triggers and the bars slam shut blowing the air by my nose and I run and laughter bubbles inside me like madness.

I wear their clanker clothes and I eat their clanker salmon after bashing it on the head so it does not flop no more and though their goods reek of oil and coal and metal they are very fine and well done and many a clanker goes home with an empty cage but I wonder more about my daughter, and the work I do feels empty and thin as water.

I dig out traps and chisel the joints and groins, but it is laborious and most times not worth the effort as they are hair-trigger and quite dangerous and the clankers check them often and never leave bait out during the day.

One night, I investigate a mine the clankers have dug against the side of a crumbling hill where their diggers grind through the rock and dirt with a steady roar and the empty cars roll into the earth in great long trains and roll out again dripping with heaps of dirty black coal.

I wait and I watch and I time their rhythms to an eyeblink over many days of hard and discomfortable spying and one morning when the sky east glows red and angry like new blood I slip and crawl to a bend in the track where the full cars go rattle-rattle-rattle down the hill and when the track is clear, I slide my pry bar under the hard metal and I heave and my muscles strain and the track comes loose.

I pant and wipe the hot sweat from my forehead and a train is due so I hide myself away and watch and the cars fly off the track in a great squeal and tear of broken metal, and coal puffs into the air in a huge black dusty cloud and my heart sings a dark song.

A buzzer flits above me and my breath freezes and my bowels turn to water, for I am sure that I am seen.  I run and stumble down the hill and the sounds of clankers stirring spur me to great risk and I leap and slide down the slope.

The buzzer follows and follows and I run until my heart pounds and my breath tears in and out of my lungs and my side stabs with pain like a knife is plunged in with every step, and I turn and the buzzer darts high and aims back towards the clankers and I do not stop for I know that it will tell the clankers and they will come and root through the ground and rip up bushes and trees trying to find me.

When the sun is high above and burns my head, I wriggle into my hidey hole and collapse into a sleep wracked with dark dreams of clankers and dismemberings and buzzers picking at my entrails like metal crows.  And the satisfaction of the wrecked coal train drains from me like water down a crack in the earth for it is just one train and the clankers have their thousands and I am just one fool throwing rocks at the tide.

I spend two nights in my hidey hole eating rat jerky and not daring to light even the smallest fire and the stink of my own shit fills the air like a noxious fog, and soon enough I cannot stand it and I careful, careful, careful slip outside and my heart beats and my mouth gets dry but there are no clankers about and at last I breathe.

I wander back along my trail for the clouds are low and rainy and so buzzers will not be out though I am still careful since day has just left and I spy a great knot of clankers working near where I last saw the buzzer.  They call to each other with clicks and whistles and sharp fast noises that hurt my head and their lights burn hot and white and throw huge dark shadows across the whole of the world.

When they leave, I work slow and careful down a hill of loose gravel scree and basalt in crumbling towers and I take my time and the stars burn like holes in the sky, and then laughter breaks out in a mad cascade of sound and I freeze mid-stride for it is not I who laughs and the sound is human though skittery and rough.

The laughter is followed by a scream like the gates of madness have been thrown open and my foot comes down hard and I slip and drop my canteen clatter-clatter-clatter down the rocky hillside.

“Come out you bastard.”  The laughter comes quick and fast again and my breath grows short.

The air is tainted with clanker reek but nothing close and so I retrieve my canteen and I wonder what manner of insanity would compel a soul to such raving in so heedless a fashion.

“Come out, come out wherever you are.”  Another scream shivers the air.  “You cannot hide from the King forever.”

I move closer though I know it is a foolish and dangerous thing to do and most other people would turn and run, but I look behind and above and to the sides and I fill my nose with air and I deem the risk high but my curiosity higher and it has been a long time since I was truly curious.  I peer around a shattered boulder. 

There on the ground sits a rough old man dressed in a suit of clanker finery with his legs crossed.  He looks familiar, but I cannot know for sure.   I take a breath.  “Ho there King, if that be your name.”  My voice sounds rusty.  “Speak soft for my ears are keen enough and I would not have the clankers join our conversation.”

“King I am and King I be.”  His stained teeth look black in the shadow and his left eye twitches and twitches.  “I know you.”  His face grows sharp and crafty and he motions me close.  “Come to King.”  He rocks back and forth and his beard brushes his knees.

Leery I be, but also fascinated.  I take one step closer and another.  “But I do not think I know you.”

“Ah, yes.  I was taken a long time ago.”  His smile is like to split his face in two and giggles leap unheeded from the wet opening of his mouth. 

I stare close and I do recognize him.  An old man, a leader of the tribe when I was young.  But his name was not King then.  “Richard?”

He laughs.  “Shut your gob.”  His eyes burn.  “There is no Richard here.”  He motions me close.  “They do paint your picture, do they not?  They have their wires on my head.”

“The clankers?”

“Well, of course, you arsehole.”  He clamps his jaw shut with a gnarled hand and then pries the fingers loose with the other.  “They want you.”  He licks his lips.  “Just one more step, damn you.”

I freeze and curse myself.  The clankers.  The clearing.  I ease back and he leaps to his feet and the trap is sprung and steel bars rip through and through the earth and I am knocked catywampus to the edge of the clearing and I take a great impact on my side and a rib cracks and  the ground shakes and Richard screams and screams and screams.

He clutches the inside of the cage and spit flies from his mouth in great ropy froth and he squeezes an arm through the bars and reaches toward me.  “Your knife, man.  Give me your knife.”

And his eyes are so wild and round and my heart goes out to him and even though he tried to trap me I do not blame him.  I hand him my knife hilt-first and he snatches it and throws his head back and his neck is long and white in the moonlight, and when he slashes he strikes hard and the blood spurts up in a terrible dark fountain and he sags to the floor of the cage like all his strings have been severed at one go.  The ground rumbles and clanker reek taints the air.

I turn and run and every step sends bright agony from my side and I press my arm tight to my rib and sharp white lights burst in my vision and at first I think my brains have snapped a line but then I realize the clankers have searchlights and they stab into the night and I am sure that I am dead or worse.

I splash uphill through a muddy creek and dig at the slope of scree with the hand not pressed tight to my side and the gravel is sharp and hard and my finger jams and my nails split, but I wriggle my body under the rocks and they press close and hard on my back and they poke my neck and my mouth fills with grit.

Cold white light burns the night and I close my eyes and a clanker strides close and I can smell the coal and oil and hot steam, and the metal-on-metal sounds of its joints stab into my ears and my breath stops and I wish I could stop the pounding of my own heart for it makes an unearthly racket and I picture the heavy metal fingers of the clanker sifting through the gravel and plucking my body from the rocks like a weevil from cornmeal.

I die a thousand times and then the light moves on and the tread of clanker feet recedes into the night and I suck air into my lungs and I do not mind the dust and grit, for the glory of just being alive fills me.

I head north and east towards the mushroom faces and Ashera for I miss her dreadful much and besides I have no knife and a man cannot live without a knife. 

When I arrive Jelly wonders aloud at my mental state for I no longer desire grog, free or not, and I have heard all of Jelly’s stories too many times and Billy’s brother has made plans to marry Ashera and I am fierce and glad that I have returned and I take a knife and some stores and no one stops me for my eyes are wild and I can see in their faces that they know I have no patience and nothing will hold me back.

I leave with Ashera who stands so straight and tall and has grown so much in the time I have been away and though it pleases me to see her traipsing along in the moonlight, I do not say much as my heart is still twisted up and we have both had enough talk from the mushroom faces for what else is there to do under the earth but yap and yap and yap on many a tedious subject.  We see a V of geese touch down to spend the night in a marshy place and we catch each other’s eye and it is much like a whole conversation and may indeed be better.

One evening, deep into clanker territory where the only cover is scrabbly brambles as every tree worth burning has long been torn from the land leaving wounded pits, I hear a crying and sobbing, and though clanker spoor is thick on the ground I am not afraid for myself but only for Ashera and I make her hide away in one of my hidey holes and I follow my ears.

In a hollow that looks for all the world like it has been scooped from the ground with a giant spoon, there sits a woman sobbing into her hands.  Her head is down and her hair is very ragged cut but her dress and shirt are clanker quality and quite tidy.

She looks up and my heart is torn clean away from my body leaving a great sucking hole for it is my own Emma and I leap forward and I run towards her, but she screams and waves me back and clanker spoor is heavy in my head and I stumble to a stop.

“Sam, oh sweet lord, go back.  No, don’t leave.”  Her voice is as ragged as her hair, but she knows me and in that instant I am a changed man.  The darkness falls away like shackles have been struck clean through and I am no longer old and no longer just plain Ratcatcher.

“I will rescue you, Emma,” I say and my heart comes back in a flood like the ocean has turned tide and it fills me up and the blood pounds in my head like a drum.

“Oh God,” she weeps, but she warns me away.  “It is a trap,  Sam.  An evil clanker trap.”  She raises her arm and displays a forged steel band thick and hard and it attaches to a chain and the links of that chain fall down into the earth and I know those links attach to the steel plate that is the bottom of the cage.

“Yes.  I know their traps.”  Each word seems to leave my mouth in a bubble of joy and horror.

“They want you, Sam.”  Emma sobs.  “You have done something.”

“They show you pictures?”

“Yes.”  Emma nods and her left eye twitches.  “You standing over a track.  You snatching fish from barrels.”

I think of the wires and the pain, and a spot of oil on the surface of a puddle sends rainbow shivers of light dancing in my eyes and the moon is reddish and falling fast and I imagine the steel bars clanging shut and I at least would be with her and we would be together.

She must have read my thoughts clear as words on a page for she screams and throws a clod of mud at my face.  “Don’t you dare, Sam.  Tell me of Ashera.  Tell me of our daughter.  I have thought of her.  I have thought of you.  I have thought much.”  Her voice is ragged and there is an edge of madness but I do not judge, for who would not be somewhat mad and she is still my Emma no matter what. 

I nod and swallow and tell her that Ashera is beautiful and a true stalwart, and Emma’s eyes fill with more tears and so do mine and she shakes with fury.

Black smoke curls up from beyond a rise further south and I know with cold certainty we have little time.  I creep onto the grass and note the traces of the steel cage where they ought to be and I ready my hammer and chisel and I strike and strike, but the chain is very strong and quite well made and I can get no purchase though I push my whole heart into each stroke.

I dig the earth away from Emma and expose the steel plate atop a spring just exactly like she were a bucket of fish save that I can not hook her with my grapple, nor can I push her over with my pole due to the links of solid chain and I am quite frantic and my breath comes fast and the moon is an enormous red ball low, low, low in the sky.

“It’s no good,” says Emma and I know she is right, but I strike at the chain links another time and she is right and they have shiny scratches but no damage.  My new skinning knife rides up in its sheath and Emma grabs for it and the blade is shiny in the light.

“Careful,” I say.  “It is quite sharp.”  My heart stutters and I am afraid.

She nods and her hair flies up and down with the force and she touches the knife to the throbbing vein at her throat.  “I will not go back,” she says.  “I will not.”

My mouth feels dry and my blood turns to ice, but I have an idea.  “Wait my darling.  Wait.”  I touch the knife and move the blade with her hand still holding the hilt so the sharp edge is away from her soft white throat and I take the knife whole in my hand and I touch the point to the skin over the base of her thumb and a single bright drop of blood wells up.

I pile rocks and my metal hammer and whatever else I can find close and easy that is heavy and I do not stop until a mound near as high as Emma is reached, and I laugh for the madness is thick on me.  She scoots part way off the trigger and we stack rocks until the balance is reached and she is completely off the trigger but still shackled.

I take the knife again and the bones of a woman are much the same as the bones of a rat though writ larger and I have had much experience with the cutting and butchering of rats.  I push fast and true and sure and though her face turns pale and her eyes seem to leap from her head, she says not a word and she holds the screams and the pain inside.

There is much blood but her thumb is off and the shackle slides over her fingers and I wrap the wound and tie of a length of cloth.  It is a delicate business and Emma’s face is bone-white and my head swims with the agony of what I have done, but I am sure and true and fast and when I lift her, the trap does not spring shut and when I step forward one-two-three it still does not spring shut, but as I cross the boundary of the hollow, a rock shivers loose from the pile and steel bars come ripping from the ground and catch and knock me catywampus.

I land outside the trap with Emma in my arms, but my left leg is broken and when I try to run a great stab of pain shoots up my body and I fall down and whimper.

Metal feet clank and the ground shakes and evil smoke billows round my head and I look over my shoulder and a clanker is hooking the cage but it turns and turns again and red lights blink and white lights stab through the fading night and it steps towards us and not away and I throw the braided steel cable with the grapple hooks and catch it in the knee joint and the other end hooks on the cage and Emma holds me on one side.

The clanker falls to the earth tangled in the cable and the ground shakes and we jump and move and the sound of its clangs and clicks and grindings grow fainter and I am sore hurt in my body, but my mind flies up and away from the muck of the earth and I picture all the clankers tripping and falling and their trains rusting in long rows all empty and Emma holds me close and helps me walk and we kiss and I cannot believe, but it is true.

We meet Ashera at the hidey hole and cauterize Emma’s wound with the flat of the knife blade heated in the fire and Ashera hugs Emma and I hug Ashera and we all three hug and the touch of the bodies around me makes the hole in the ground feel as large as a church and the yellow firelight flickers off the walls.

Ashera holds Emma’s good hand tight tight tight and I bustle about and make johnnycakes and Emma does not want fish or peanut mash but her eyes light up at skewered rat and we eat with relish and she is very tired and there are many tears and smiles and exclamations and kisses and hugs and my heart feels firm and whole in my chest and I laugh and my heart is set very solid and when I finally let myself go to sleep pressed up tight to Emma and Ashera, I am not afraid to wake up.


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Garth Upshaw lives in Portland, Oregon with his super-genius wife and three precocious children. When he's not breeding tarantulas, he rides his bike through the sleeting downpours. His stories have appeared five times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including “Breathing Sunshine” in BCS #64, and his other stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and other magazines.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Gizzard Stones” by Garth Upshaw
“Songdogs” by Ian McHugh

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1 Comment on “Ratcatcher”

One Response to “Ratcatcher”

  1. Jess says:

    Marvellous! I love Ratcatcher’s idiosyncratic voice; it took a bit of getting used to, but once I’d caught the rhythm it really made the character come alive for me. And the world Garth has created here is so intriguing, grimy, and visceral – I want to know more!

    I also read ‘Gizzard Stones’ recently, and adored that too. Encore!

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