An Improbable Alliance

An Improbable Alliance

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The rat-catcher of Dresden was regarded as a most gifted representative of his vocation. Where his predecessors were sluggish and slatternly men, given to raising rats in cages and massacring them to increase the commission owed to them by the city’s cash-strapped burghers, he was an exemplar of professionalism. He was acknowledged to be a true sportsman, comparable to a fowler or boar-slayer. That his quarry were vermin who nested in refuse dumps, haystacks, and sewers, and not dignified beasts that made their lairs in the deep woods, was a fact seldom acknowledged. His talents were such that he was eventually ascribed magical properties.

In truth, the rat-catcher successes were much amplified by his deportment. He routinely sported a flamboyant costume consisting of white leather pants, a green coat, and a scarlet waistcoat. His grey hair was thoroughly coiffured and he often perfumed himself, nearly steeping his rough hands in lavender and lilac. In this way, he dispelled the prejudices of Dresden’s bourgeoisie, who, while eager to rid themselves of the slithey vermin who scurried in their walls, nibbled on their bread, and stole their costly silver, were not eager to contract the services of the cesspool-sewermen who typically served as rat-catchers. The boots of those shabby characters were known to stain carpets.
The rat-catcher was careful not to let his elegance demerit his talents, however. He bore scars across his body, and willingly displayed them to anyone who accused him of undue refinement. He once confessed to a scandalized fräulein, “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I cannot name, madam. I once had the teeth of a rat break in my finger. The bite was dreadful bad, and swole, and putrefied, so that I had to have the thing’s shattered fangs drawn out with tweezers.”

The humble rat was his nemesis. He would explain to anyone who would listen that the vermin that were everywhere around them were, “perpetually in the clutches of hell-contrived bestial love” and that, if their numbers were left unchecked by men like himself, “the very surface of the globe would rapidly be rendered a barren waste, covered in famished and desperate grey rats, against which man could contend but meekly.”

These apocalyptic pronouncements lent urgency to the rat-catcher’s work, and he was remunerated accordingly.

The rat-catcher was aided in his crusade against the fecund vermin by a brigade of trained dogs and ferrets. He had devised a cunning system by which his ferrets would sniff out and discover rats, while his dogs would do the same for his ferrets. The latter animals, dull-witted but with serpentine bodies, were adept at penetrating and searching rat warrens. When they became lost or trapped, as would often happen, the rat-catcher’s dogs would locate them. The rat-catcher had arrived at this ingenious partnership only after experimenting with a variety of other species, including badgers and monkeys. Those animals had proven themselves to be deficient hunters and killers.

Dresden’s teeming vermin grew to fear the rat-catcher, and they were much depleted by his industry. He liquidated dens of rats, killing their inhabitants like they were Midians or Amorites and he was the ordained dispenser of a belligerent god’s rough justice. He regularly presented the city’s bureaucrats with more pink tails than they could possibly count. He grew rich, and the rats grew scarce and timorous.

Though the city’s human inhabitants were greatly pleased by the rat-catcher’s accomplishments—even awarding him a permanent stipend—its felines were appreciably less so. The rat-catcher had robbed them of the two things, which all creatures most covet: their means of employment and their preferred foodstuff. The thorough decimation of Dresden’s rats made the cats both dispensable and hungry. Obligate carnivores deprived of meat; the city’s cats developed a reputation for gauntness, and were alleged to eat moldy cheese and the rinds of stale bread loaves.

The cats of Dresden grew desperate, and in their desperation they contrived a startling solution. They met in secret, in the overgrown garden of a fat and tottering friar, and they elected one of their number, a grey tom of exceptional size and celebrated ferocity, to seek out and meet with the despot of the Dresden rats: a swollen and practically mythic rodent whose honorific title was Hiksneetch the Prodigious, Prinz of the Cesspit, Margrave of the Many Cupboards, and Sire of a Million Young. The grey tom was charged with locating this creature, treating with him, and presenting him with a solution to forestall the extinction of his kind. The grey tom’s peers had labored hard—as hard as cats can labor—to contrive a remedy that would both alleviate the hunger of Dresden’s cats and mitigate the persecutions daily being meted out to the city’s rats.

In the dead of night, the grey tom stole out from the home where he idled away his days. He disappeared into the rain-slicked streets and swiftly located an uncovered storm drain in one of Dresden’s disreputable quarters. He descended into the sewer’s clammy void and began threading the narrow passages of crumbling, stained brick. He hoped to quickly locate the mighty rat-despot and his harem of swollen, expectant dams, all immobilized by his potency.

As the grey tom crawled through the numberless passages—his yellow eyes scanning them keenly—he saw clans of filth-coated humans crawling in the muck, swimming in the slough, and drinking deep its fetid and fusty air. These deteriorated humans, with their stunted children in tow and their toad-eyed babies clinging to their backs, plied the sewers, scavenging for valuables that had descended, manna-like, from the world of gilding and refinement.

The grey tom wandered for a very long time, passing through galleries and chambers long abandoned. He eventually arrived at a great vault guarded by swarms of black rats whose eyes sparkled meanly. Their golden teeth were curved like scimitars. They permitted the grey tom to enter the vault: the terminus of a thousand winding warrens, and the buzzing nucleus of an invisible empire. He saw, at its center, the corpulent king of Dresden’s rodent multitudes, a white creature whose undulating, slack bulk was barely contained by the decaying ottoman on which he reclined. Hiksneetch the Prodigious was attired in sacerdotal robes of silk and gold—in the loose, flowing fashion favored by antique despots from dust-clogged lands—and his small, tick-like head was roofed by a lofty tiara that might have been filched from some bourgeois infanta. His pink eyes were ringed with coal and his cheeks were unaccountably rouged.

The grey tom stayed his cattish hauteur and contained the laughter welling in his throat. The import of his mission mandated courtesy. He bowed low to the rat-despot, and a muddled stew of compliments issued from his fanged mouth. The rat-despot, who liked praise almost as much as he liked thick, buttery quark, was pleased by the proceedings and encouraged the wily cat to spin more tributes in his honor. The cat submitted, exercising the wiles innate in his kind.

After a long while, the rat-despot was glutted by praise. He asked, in a lisped squeak: “Cat, I am the possessor of a great kingdom, and have much to attend to. You, who are small and disposable, cannot appreciate my toils and my function in this kingdom. I must ask you to dispense with your endless flatteries, which mean nothing to me, and to tell me why you have come here, dampening your drab fur in the slurry of men. Your kind is not known for adventuring; nor are you regarded as gifted diplomatists, unlike the pigs. The pigs are most forthright and honorable.”

“I have come, gracious and hospitable Hiksneetch, to propose a plan, which will, my leaders assure me, eradicate an irritant to your great kingdom,” the grey tom replied. “The cats would like to remove the rat-catcher who has proven so adept at exterminating your subjects. He is a bother to us.”

The rat-despot’s eyes, formerly dull, grew lively: “He is of no consequence to me, that man to which you allude. I could have his throat gnawed open as he slept; I could have him poisoned and putrefied by a thousand toxins. Is it not known in the sun-lit lands above that I am the keeper of many assassins? If I were to give them but a word, these servitors of mine would have their black fur steeped in that man’s blood. It is a mark of his insignificance that I have not done so. He is of no concern to me.” The rat-despot’s eyes returned to their accustomed languor.

“Come now, you and I know this to be falsehood, sagacious Hiksneetch,” the grey tom whispered. “My superiors are wise and know your plight. Even you, in your potency, cannot rear more of your kind than the rat-catcher can kill. He will find you and end you. One of his brainless terriers will snap your gullet or crush your skull in its jaws.”

“You do not address me in the manner I am accustomed to being addressed, cat. I could have you suffer stupendous torments that would make you yowl for death. I, in my boundless munificence, would give it.” The rat-despot motioned to one of his sycophants—he had many. An oafish-looking grey rat heeded his lord’s unspoken command and limped into a obscured part of the vault. He returned quickly, his little arms burdened by a platter with a mound of crumbled and creamy cheese on it. The platter—broken in places—had once been a tea plate. The rat-despot greedily scooped a pawful of cheese from this platter and thrust it into his mouth. He hoarded some in his bulged cheeks.

The grey tom approached the ottoman on which the rat-despot lay and spoke in a hushed tone that showed his unspooling patience. “You are not a king, but a witless worm. I have not passed through grime and muck to bandy meaningless words with a creature so bereft of brains it does not know its danger.” He waited for a few moments, his steady, unblinking eyes meeting the shifting, frantic eyes of the rat, and concluded, “I will now take my leave. I do not think we have anything to discuss, and these surroundings are less cozy than I like.”

The grey tom turned to leave. Just as he did so, he heard a faint squeak: “Cat, I would prefer you remain with me—at least for a little while.” The rat-despot quickly recovered his misplaced composure: “It is clear that man you spoke of vexes your kind. I am a generous sovereign and wish to assist you and your fellows. If you would be willing to negotiate in a friendlier manner, I feel you and I could arrive at some understanding regarding him. We agree on one point: he is odious.”

And so the grey tom and his host, the white rat-despot with the pink eyes, spoke awhile and plotted the demise of Dresden’s rat-catcher. It would have troubled him to know that, as he gnawed on spätzle, his expiry was being minutely orchestrated in the dank tunnels under his feet. He had briefly been a god: a thing who ended the lives of lesser things for sport. Now, he was to be made a dupe of fortune. Maybe, it was for the best he was unaware of the underground whisperings determining his lot. The knowledge might have given him indigestion.

On a sunny day, late in the afternoon, the rat-catcher paused in his work and visited one of his preferred taverns. It was a clean and friendly place. He was known to loiter there, spending most of the money his patrons lavished upon him on strong beer. He had killed many rats that day and expected to kill many more before its end. He was very thirsty that day.

As he sipped his beer, a nearby woman screamed. The rat-catcher looked to her and observed her raptly watching the street outside. He followed her eyes and saw a queer sight: countless cats were strolling down the street with rats in their jaws. They moved slowly, as if they sought to exhibit their slayings. Such is the vanity of their kind.
The very presence of rats was a rebuke to the rat-catcher. He had, on numerous occasions, boasted of the imminent extinction of Dresden’s rats. Once, he had declared, “Dresden will be the first city in Christendom to be cured of the verminous scourge, which hell begat in time immemorial. The scurrying, chattering multitudes, their fur soaked in all the poxes of the East, will have no purchase in this city. Reason and civilization shall replace them.” His claim had, in an instant, been proven premature.

Downing the frothy remains of his drink, the rat-catcher armed himself with what equipment he had available and staggered into the street outside. He charged in the opposite direction of the ambling cats. He was intent on locating the infestation they had found before him.

He jogged awhile, nearly tripping over cats, and eventually came to an abandoned courtyard: a place of overgrown vines and broken masonry. He found what he sought. There, in the center of the courtyard, was a vision snatched from old legend: a thousands of gleaming, frenzied eyes and yellowed teeth. It was a Rattenkönig: a heap of rats whose tails had become hopelessly intertwined, and whose members were now bound to one another until their death. Thousands of rats had become fused, by accident, into a single, hydra-headed beast. The rat-catcher recalled the teachings of the most learned Konrad Gesner, a naturalist who had argued convincingly in publications dedicated to the subject that, “the rat waxes mighty in its old age and is fed by its young: this is called the rat king.” Gesner had deduced that a Rattenkönig required a dominant node to coordinate its countless independent elements. How else could so many claws and minds attain the unity of action often exhibited by these fabulous abominations? The rat-catcher knew there was a truly mighty rat in the deeps of the Rattenkönig, a creature wise enough to oversee the movements of the lesser rats that orbited it as they tripped over their matted, tied tails. He resolved to find this creature and kill it.

Beer and pride had mixed in the rat-catcher’s belly. Fused, they made him fall prey to wild fancies. The rat-catcher glimpsed a pale creature—more like a diminutive pig than a rat—surface out of the seething mass of vermindom before him. Like a whale emerging from its hideaway in the cold sea, it was visible for but a moment. He reasoned that his beer had been more potent than usual, for he was certain he saw a shining crown upon the creature’s head. The sight fuelled the rat-catcher’s well-stoked rage. He would now be heedless and rash in his quest to scour the earth of the Rattenkönig.

The rat-catcher reached into a pouch he carried by his side and retrieved from it a clutch of old-fashioned granadoes, which he had purchased cheaply from a toothless veteran of the battle of Hohenfriedeberg. He lit the slow-burning wicks that crowned these rusted, gunpowder-stuffed spheres, and lobbed them into the swarm of rats. He blew apart masses of vermin. Their piteous squeaks were deafening, eclipsing the sound of the ordnance tormenting them. Though their numbers were diminished, the balance of the rats within the Rattenkönig remained obstinately alive.

Undaunted by this disappointment, the rat-catcher reached into a second pouch and exhumed a blunderbuss from its pit. It was brimming with nails and coins. He fired it into the rats, scattering dozens of them to every corner of the disordered, fog-saturated courtyard. This weapon proved even less effective than the grenadoes that had preceded it.

Incensed by his impotence, the rat-catcher dropped a sacked he carried on his back. It clattered loudly against the cobblestones. He tore it open and unveiled a corroded suit of armor and a heavy-bladed saber. He quickly donned the armor, strapping it to his fine clothes, and took up the weapon in his gauntleted fist. He waded into the churning mass of rats, hacking and slashing at the Rattenkönig. He was buoyant now, cheered by the slaughter generated by his own hand. He killed with the abandon of a wanton boy loosed on butterflies or tadpoles or other harmless things. He sought out the overgrown white rat he had glimpsed just minutes before. He could not suffer it to escape.

As he neared the spoke of the great living wheel—the foul Gordian Knot where a thousand pink tails were snared—he chanced to see the white rat again. It was—he was certain of it—lolling coolly on the backs of its leaner underlings, undisturbed by the strivings of the man who sought to end its reign. The rat-catcher, sweating from his efforts, was made beast-like and stupid by this sight. He forced his way through the rats, pressing on vigorously through them. Their teeth shattered against his armor.

The rat-catcher was certain of triumph. Just as he felt sure he would reach the white rat, the creature turned from him and fled. Leaderless, the rats began to scatter. It bounded away with a speed its rotundity belied. The ground beneath the rat-catcher’s feet bubbled with frenzied, violent movement. He was now in a roiling sea of rats. Unlike the Rattenkönigs of yore, however, these rats were able to untangle themselves and explode apart, running this way and that. The rat-catcher had been robbed of his anticipated victory.

He pursued the rats as they bolted into Dresden’s winding alleys. They streamed into the broken window of a basement. He followed them. Neighborhood children say the rat-catcher paused before plunging into the dilapidated structure. For an instant perhaps, reason was ascendant within him, governing his inflamed mind and his tired body. His weariness and his good sense were weaker than his pride, however. The children say he smashed the basement window, heaved himself through it with grunts and snarls, and disappeared from sight. With that, he exited the city’s history.

The rat-catcher’s clients remembered him only when they found their bread dirtied by ravening pests or their trinkets purloined by cunning thieves. They sighed at his departure, though none could recall his name.

The rat-catcher had exited the sphere of tangible, existing things—of beer, and cheese, and rats skittering in old walls—and entered the dim-lit, vaporous circle of legends. Wondrous tales are told about him; some are credible and most are not. A few tavern troubadours say he followed the rats into the sewers and meandered among the unending and filth-coated passages until, faint and overpowered by the poisoned air, he dropped down and died on the spot. Others claim that he was beset by enormous rats, and that he slew thousands of them in a struggle for life, which ended only when the swarming, savage things overpowered him and dragged him to an ignoble death. Those who specialize in this telling of the rat-catcher’s coda often suggest his skeleton was discovered a few days after his disappearance, picked to the very bones.

The minutiae of the rat-catcher’s oblivion are unimportant. It is enough to know that his is the fate of those who delight in daring exploits and who, drawn by desire for the heavens, soar needlessly and are blighted by the sun.

One must also remember that his is the fate of those who disturb the sacred equilibrium of catkind.

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