by J. M. Eno
A blue New York moon hung low over the corner of 18th Street and 7th Avenue, where its soft light blended into the yellow of the streetlights and the black of the pavement. Oliver’s parents were fighting again, and so he lingered as he walked his bulldog Winston to the corner. He waved at Reggie, the man who had taken up residence near his apartment building. On chilly nights the hot air wafting from the building’s laundry vents would warm his wiry limbs.
“How are you doing, young man?” Reggie asked.
“I’m all right,” Oliver said.
“And how are you?” Reggie said to Winston. He waited a moment for Winston to respond and then said, “I’m fine, too. Thanks for asking!” Winston wagged his stubby tail fervently.
Oliver had just turned back toward his building when Winston froze and let out a long, low growl. He stared at the street corner where, sitting on its haunches and looking back at Winston, was a solitary gray rat. The hair on the back of Oliver’s neck began to stand up.
“Don’t pay that rat any mind,” Reggie said. “He’s a friend of mine! Did I ever tell you about the time I saw the Rat King?”
“I don’t think so,” Oliver said.
Every kid growing up in New York City has heard of a rat king: a group of rats living deep in the bowels of the city crammed into a space so tight that their tails get all knotted up, their bodies begin to join, and they fuse into one monstrous creature. Oliver’s parents told him that they were a myth, like the alligators that lived in the sewers.
“About three or four years ago,” Reggie began, “I was the last person in West 4th Street Station, around the time of night when the trains only come every half hour or so. It was pouring rain outside, and the station was leaking worse than a cheap bodega umbrella.
“I walked down four flights of stairs to the lowest level of the station in search of a place to stay dry.
“On the last step, I tripped and fell face first onto the subway platform. Only I didn’t hit the platform — I went clear through.
“I found myself in a large chamber, about the size of the lobby in a fancy high-rise building, and it was completely full of rats: rats scurrying in and out, rats climbing the walls, and rats that appeared to be arming themselves with tiny swords and shields.
“One of them rats came right up to me, looked me directly in the eye, and when he spoke, I could understand his every word.
“He said, ‘Good sir, my name is Mattias. My fellows and I are marching this very evening on the tyrant king, Trey Cabeza of the Dark Sewers. He has claimed dominion over our home here under the West Fourth Street Station. If we do not meet him in battle, he will slaughter every person who lives here and take it for himself. Long ago, our prophets foretold your coming, speaking of a great man who would lead us to freedom. Look, there,’ and he pointed just behind me.
“Wouldn’t you know, on the wall above me was an intricate mosaic built from pieces of glass bottles, tin foil wrappers, and other scraps. The man in the mosaic looked just like me, and he was leading an army of rats in battle.
“I could see in his eyes that Mattias was scared for his home, and, a home being something I know can be easily lost, I told him I would join his cause. They didn’t have weapons big enough for me, so I picked up a trash can lid and an end of pipe that was lying in a corner.
“After two hours of marching, we made it to a great open cavern, the top of which was covered in glittering stalactites that must have formed from a leak somewhere in the city above.
“Across the cavern were thousands of the most vile rats you’ve ever seen, all wearing a sigil that depicted three bloody claws. In front of his forces was the Rat King himself, a hideous vermin with a body the size of a house cat, matted black fur, and three gnarled heads, the middle one topped with a tiny crown. His tail was a hairless, tangled mess that resembled a clump of writhing worms, and he scampered about on twelve legs.
“Before I knew it, the two sides charged, and I was in the thick of rat pandemonium: sword against shield, tooth and claw.
“Straight away the Rat King’s forces had us on the back foot. I was swinging my pipe every which way, but even a full grown man couldn’t stop that many royalist rats.
“In the middle of the cavern, the Rat King himself met Mattias in battle. He swung his axe, but Mattias blocked the blow with his shield. Mattias poked and prodded with his sword, and the Rat King parried. They traded blows, back and forth, until the Rat King twirled around, swept his massive, knotted tail, and knocked Mattias clean off his feet.
“And then something came over me, and I yelled a war cry that came from deep in my guts, something like I’ve never yelled before. I ran to the middle of the chamber, swung my pipe as hard as I could, and knocked the Rat King clear across the cavern. He hit the wall so hard he split back into three separate rats, each of which ran in a separate direction.
“Mattias and his rats returned my cry, and everything changed. We sent the Rat King’s army scattering around the cavern, and in a few minutes, we had driven them all away.
“The only thing left of the opposing army was the crown that had sat upon the Rat King’s middle head. I picked it up, and found that it had been formed out of a penny. Rats are industrious creatures, you see, and will find a use for almost anything that humans might throw away or misplace.
“We all went back to Mattias’s den and celebrated with a feast, the likes of which had never been seen. They even brought me a few pizza crusts they found in boxes, which was kind on account of the fact that those crusts are their favorite food. And I met every single one of Mattias’s eight hundred children, though I can only remember about half their names.
“I lived with Mattias for a couple more weeks and found his hospitality to be better in nearly every respect to that of a human. But one day I woke up with an irresistible urge to see the sun again. Mattias showed me a way through the tunnels to get back to West 4th Street Station, and I exited onto the platform I had fallen through. Behind me, the door shut so snugly into the frame that you couldn’t tell there was a passageway there at all.
“Well, ever since then, I’ve been able to understand just about everything an animal might say to me. Isn’t that right, Winston?”
Winston panted happily. Oliver looked back at the corner, but the rat had scampered off somewhere. On the nearby avenue, a taxi driver blared his horn at a slow driver.
“I hope you enjoyed my story,” said Reggie, “and if you did, I hope you may find it in your heart to offer me some assistance once again.”
Oliver had once heard that a good story was a sort of spell, a beautiful lie spoken into existence. He had to admit he had enjoyed the tale, though he didn’t believe a word of it. And yet somehow, having heard it, he felt better about returning to his apartment and facing his parents. He scrounged around in his pocket for a few dollars to hand to Reggie.
“Thank you kindly, young man,” said Reggie. “And don’t you forget to leave your pizza crusts in the box for my friends, the rats.”
The hand that took the money was calloused and rough. On Reggie’s smallest finger was a small, copper ring with sawtooth edges on one side that zigged and zagged toward his fingernail. To Oliver, standing under the swirling New York lights, it looked a bit like a crown.
* * *
About the Author
J. M. Eno is a husband, father, and writer living in New York. He can be found on street corners imploring his intransigent English bulldog to move or on Twitter at @jmenowrites.