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Well, I'm disguised as a rat.
It's tough for me to coordinate four limbs in a scamper, but I've got crawling down. The main thing that gets me is the swap between vision and smell--wow the smells! It's like I've been blind all my life, and now I see a painting, a broad palette of scents all speaking to me about--
About how I smell really human. Crap. Totally overlooked this in my transmogrification--just like a human would. I lick myself, but it doesn't help. Now I smell like a human covered in spit.
Well, the show must go on.
I creep to one corner of the plexiglass, wire-mesh, 36'' by 8'' cage on the floor of the pet shop and whisper to the nearest rat inside. "Hello?"
Her nose wrinkles; she slips closer to me, staring at me through the mesh.
"Hey, I have some questions for you!" I say.
"Never mind me," she says. "I have some questions for you! What are you?"
"I'm the Traveller. What's your name?"
"They call me White One. It's not a proper name, but it's what they call me for now, and I can't deny it's practical. Among all of the others, I am the white one."
Oh, good! I've got the right rat.
"How old are you?" I ask.
"I'm five months old," she says. That's just the age where rats reach social maturity and work out their rank within the colony. So she's like--a college kid. A college kid with a curious nose twitching and sniffing up and down without pausing, like a little motor. "What's going on?" she asks me.
"What do you mean?"
"There's something happening outside. No one seems to know what it is, but it's making us all on edge. The prophet is calling it a 'storm.' That might be true. What I know: The air smells damp, and I feel a tingling in my whiskers like something big is about to happen. I wish I could get outside to get a proper look at it."
Her eyes seem to sharpen, or glimmer at me with meaning. I grimace; my tail stiffens. "I get the hint. But I can't help you get out, and I can't tell you what's going on--and I actually mean can't, not may not, or don't want to. I wish I could, but my freedom to travel comes with some handicaps."
She digests that for a moment; I don't know how long I've got before her story begins, but my whiskers are tingling too and I don't want to die, so I jump right in with the biggest questions.
"What's your biggest fear?"
She's still hung up on the whole "outside"-thing. "None of us know what happens when we leave this place. If you ask Nezumi, the Beyond is like a paradise. If you ask Monster, it's just another cage, a trap loaded with danger. I think they're both right, but probably both wrong as well, and I can't be satisfied with not knowing for sure." She flicks her tail and looks away from me, beyond me. "I'm afraid of never finding out what actually rests outside. But I'm more afraid that I'll get outside and discover that there was really nothing to discover in the first place. Does that make sense? I've tried telling the others that, but they look at me like I've gone mad."
"Well, they're just more easily satisfied than you are," I say. "I understand you--but you probably understand them a little, too, right? You like some things about where you are. Food, for example--what's your favorite food?"
"Every so often, the Great Ones give us a mix of seeds with our kibble, and there's peanuts in them, still in the shell. A lot of them have gone sour with age, but when they're fresh they're the very best. Sometimes we fight over them. Usually it's Cookie who gets hold of them first, but she'll drop them when Bitey challenges her, and I can just sneak in and get them while they tussle. No one ever notices. I think it makes them taste better."
I like the glimmer in her eye, and the way she gnashes her teeth when she says that. I feel my rat-tummy getting grumbly--I distract myself. "And sounds," I say. "What's your favorite sound?"
"Footsteps approaching. When the sky opens, food comes, and I can get a little glimpse of outside -- and the sky always opens after footsteps sound outside."
"You really want out, don't you." I'm smiling or smirking--I think. I don't know how rats smile. "It's like your personal dream or something."
She twitches her ears 'yes.' "Once, I ran free in the Beyond," she says. "It was a brief moment -- just a few minutes before they caught me and dropped me back in the cage -- but it was amazing. The smells! There was so much out there to explore. I ache to see it again."
"Well--I'm sure you will. Am I allowed to say that?" I glance around as if the Rules might get me. I whisper. "White One, you've got big things ahead of you. Be--careful."
I look around again. That tingling she mentioned--it's tickling my whole face now, and I think I hear an ominous rumble in the distance. I need to get out of here before everything goes to rat-poop--but--
Just a few more questions. I don't know when I'll get an opportunity like this again.
"Hey, could you tell me a little more about--what's it like, being a rat?"
She tilts her head. "What's it like being something else?"
That's easy. "Like you've lost your sense of smell, and your eyes fill up with details and colors you've never imagined--you can't see ultraviolet anymore, though, so no signatures in pee--but far away things look clear, and you're very big and clumsy on your hind-paws but really, really precise with your front-paws."
She parses that for a second. I'm sure by now she's figured from the smell I share my species with the things that feed her--and sure enough, she says,
"Well, imagine that you are very small, very cunning, but ultimately weaker than nearly everything else around you. Even when you're completely safe from predators, you know in your bones that the safety won't last. You have to be ready to run at any minute. You have to stick with the others. You have to keep your eyes and ears and whiskers looking for danger at every second, because you could be food for something else at any moment. You know this, and you've always known this, but you can't let it consume you. It's just a part of who you are. That's what being a rat means."
My turn to pause. "You know, maybe that ever-present danger is what being alive means. Maybe huma--uh, my species--just tries to spend a lifetime forgetting it."
She begins to answer--
A scream from another rat in the cage! It's Nezumi, the prophetic mother rat--she tears at the glass, hurls her sickly form at it--"Get out, get out!" she cries. "Before it comes!"
Every hair on my body stands on end like a soldier snapping to attention. Her wild eyes--
Whatever my philosophy on human mortality, the fact remains--a rat can die in a rainstorm, a rat will die in this rainstorm, and I need out. Now.
I always hate this part.
I gaze past White One over the cage. All her friends, such unique and strange and beautiful creatures--to think that within a week they'll--and I can't do anything--
Sometimes I hate my job.
But rats don't cry. I touch my nose to the side of the cage; White One salutes me back, her round liquid ruby eyes brimming with questions. I give her one last nod--"You can do this"--and I'm gone.
You can buy the book White One's from, and find out what the big scary happening is, at these places!
And of course, if you want to learn more about White One's author: http://tlbodine.blogspot.com