Rickie's mom said to her, as she always did before Rickie left the nest, "Be sure to keep your tail dry." It always made Rickie mad when she said that. How could she keep her tail clean and dry, born and bred to the sewer as she was? She scurried along, late as usual, especially since she was going to drop in first on Roger, the handsome young rat who lived in one of the up—sewer cages on campus. She had heard that a particularly ripe piece of Camembert awaited the winner of tonight’s maze race. Not only did she want the Camembert, her favorite kind of cheese, but she longed to win the contest for the sake of the praise she hoped it would gain her from Roger.
He had the longest tail and pinkest eyes she had ever seen, and his whiskers shone. She could watch the light shine through his delicate ears forever. Not talkative, he nonetheless radiated intelligence and a great knowledge of the world which he had gleaned in clean, well—lighted places, quite unlike the atmosphere Rickie inhaled in her home underground, among the fetid wastes. Rickie often bemoaned her own appearance, especially the color of her eyes, a plain brown, although her mother often remarked on their fine sheen and protuberance.
Rickie did not have the right to be in the laboratory, dirty and poorly bred as she was; in fact, she would have been killed on the spot if any human saw her, but curiosity drove her, and of course, her love for the rat of her dreams. Sneaking around bothered her, but she had no choice.
"Hi Roger," Rickie said In her friendliest, most eager way, as she arrived at Roger’s cage somewhat out of breath, leaving a little dropping in front of his cage in sheer delight at seeing him again. "I’m all ready for the maze run I told you about." Roger yawned, showing the inside of his delicate pink mouth. "How boring," said Roger, squelchingly. "I’m involved in an extremely important experiment, so I’m not interested in what you want to talk about today." He looked as snooty as a rat can, peering down his long pointed nose at her.
Roger Rat participating in an experiment
"You’d better hide," he said, indicating with a pink claw the advancing figures of portly Professor Garstig and his graduate assistant, plucky Bill Grausam, casually chatting about something. (By the way, like all rats, Rickie and Roger could understand human speech, although they could have no idea at all of what humans were up to, so their ability did not do them much good.) As they came closer Rickie and Roger heard Garstig say. "Bill, I want to compliment you. You’ve been doing a damn good job of shaking these cages and tomorrow we can start looking at the results. I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You look tired. It isn’t easy to get up three times in the middle of the night to shake 500 cages for thirty days, is it?" But think of the rewards you’ll have when I let you finish working for me and you get your Ph.D. Always keep your eye on the goal, m’boy." Grausam grinned winningly. Garstig continued, "It’s nice to have a dependable young man working for me while I attend important conferences in warmer parts of the country. I want to get this whole thing wrapped up before the big meeting on Maui."
"So let’s see what you’ve been up to, here. I want to get this straight, since I haven’t been here for a while——this is the control group, the ones you don’t shake," Garstig said, pointing to the bank of cages across the room, "and this is the test group," he said, gesturing at the cages where Roger and 499 other rodents resided. "Correct, sir," Grausam said in his manly yet subservient way, "The experiment will be over soon, and we’ll have 1,000 pieces of data to look at. We’ll know whether the stressed, shaken rats have more malignancies than the unstressed, control ones." Now Rickie always felt that anything she could not understand had to be important, so, although she did not know what the experiment was about, she could believe in its seriousness. Just how serious she and Roger would soon learn. But for the time being, Rickie gave up trying to figure it out, besides which it all sounded rather dry, and Roger had nothing more to say to her, so she waited until the men had left and headed out, top speed, to the site of the Radical Rat Maze Run, prizes for all.
The race had luckily not yet started. She could smell the cheese in the air, mingled with the odor of hundreds of excited rodents, as she arrived at the site, a container near the University catering services, where many delicacies awaited the eager throng of contenders. The rats could not know this, but there had been a meeting of university officials, a fancy affair with lox and caviar and champagne and other such luxury food, all for very important men used to being well fed, who it was hoped, would contribute to continued animal experiments which would make the University even more famous than it already was.
The great prize from this feast was a large cheese which had been rejected for overripeness—— the caterer, not in the know about fine cheeses, had thrown out a perfect wheel of excellent Camembert. This was a once in a lifetime experience for the sewer rats, but instead of simply going for the cheese, and with a proper tribal sense of ceremony, they had decided to turn this into a community event——and It was understood that the winner of the race would share the prize with the losers.
These rats know the value of solidarity, unlike their captive brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, they were all too apt to live for the night and forget the cares of the day, so they contented themselves too easily with the occasional riches that came to them. And they all liked to run mazes. Maze running had gone out of late as a laboratory rat activity, for some reason, but the ancestors of rats who had escaped laboratories in earlier days had brought the custom to the free— living rats.
Everything had been well organized. With great effort, a gang of rats had removed the cheese from the container and set it in the middle of a maze built of trash, pop cans, and plastic containers, but of classic proportions, as good as any lab maze. The Camembert smelled fantastic in the heat of this early fall day; Rickie's sharp little nose twitched with pleasure. She could relax end enjoy herself, too, because the scouts and guards would warn the contenders in plenty of time if they needed to escape from the Campus Patrol or any prowling cats; they could disappear down the drainpipe with ten seconds’ warning.
Now the contestants lined up, and the referee emitted the high—pitched squeak which sent all the rats, young and old, male and female, scurrying toward the goal. Once inside the maze, Rickie lost her bearings immediately, and bumped into so many other rats that she started to get dizzy. She heard a terrific commotion to her right and headed off in that direction, only to be knocked over by a large rat with a missing ear and orange teeth, but she staggered up and ran on. It was just the heat of the contest that made the rats lose their usually impeccable manners. Mostly through luck and following her nose, Rickie got to the center first, planted her incisors in the cheese, took a big bite, and then leapt to the top of it , squeaking, "I won, I won !" Her brown eyes shone with triumph and seemed even more bulbous than usual. Her whiskers trembled with emotion. "Come everyone and share the cheese! " A mighty shriek of jubilation issued from a thousand throats. What a celebration they had that night! They danced and sang and ate themselves sick on rotten cheese and drank stale champagne, retreating at last to their dens to lie on their backs, replete and content, until the next sunset awoke them.
The very next evening Rickie went to tell Roger about yesterday’s excitement. She got extremely animated describing how she ran through the maze, winning through sheer brains and superior nosepower against bigger, stronger and more aggressive rats. She couldn’t help bragging a little, even though she knew it was mostly good luck, but she so much wanted Roger to admire her. Roger listened for a while, and then gave the biggest yawn, she’d ever seen, showing off his incisors ."How plebeian you are, ‘he said, "Why don’t you do useful things, like me? I’m involved in an important scientific experiment. I have been shaken ten times since I last saw you. You look like a mess, too. Your fur’s dirty and you smell. Besides, you carry disease and I live in a sterile environment." "I can’t help that, Roger," Rickie said, and totally overwhelmed by shame, turned and retreated into the shadows.
Just then, to her horror Garstig and Grausam walked in, turning up the lights. "That was a close one, I’ve got to be more careful," Rickie said to herself. "Anyway," she went on, "that Roger’s not worth it." Why do I put up with him anyway? Is it just chemistry? I can’t even get near him, because he can’t get out of his cage. Why can’t I content myself with a nice sewer rat? I know lots of good looking rodents, some of them a lot better endowed than Roger, too. I must have something wrong with me. Do I like being rejected?"
She heard the rumbling, like thunder, of the voices above her and then the sound of many cage doors opening. What was happening? "Help, help," she heard from a thousand rodent throats. They’re murdering us." Frozen to the spot by horror, Rickie crouched in her hiding spot. Finally she built up the courage to peek out; what she saw made her tremble as if she would shake to pieces. She look up and saw dozens of corpses already stacked on a table. Grausam was cutting them open as fast as Garstig could kill them.
They had started with the unshaken rats and were systematically going from cage to cage, but how could she rescue Roger? He could not open the door. But wait! Overcoming her fear, she watched intently as Garstig opened the door, took out a terrified rat and suffocated it. The next cage and the next. She saw how Garstlg pushed the catch and then lifted it up. She knew she had to try, but was she strong enough, and would the men see her? Advancing stealthily to the bank of cages, she snuck up to Roger’s. Cowering in the corner, in shock, he awaited his fate. When he saw her he squeaked, "Save me, save me." "Shhh, do you want them to hear you?" Pushing with all her strength, she threw herself against the catch, lifting up on it at the same time. It gavel! The door sprang open. Rickie grabbed Roger and pushed him into the dark corner, where he lay trembling, his fur on end and his eyes rolling wildly. Working as fast as she could, she set free as many rats as she dared, a band of about 50, and taking to their heels, they all escaped through the plumbing to freedom.
Well, Rickie, already a celebrity for her amazing performance in the Radical Rat Maze Run became a great hero. Roger, realizing at last the truth of his own situation as well as Rickie's true worth, became her devoted slave and they were married in a simple, yet well—attended ceremony. They dined on leftovers from an English department faculty meeting (salami rinds, cracker crumbs and residues of cheap red and white wine from paper cups) and waxed merry until the dawn. Rickie's mother was terribly pleased, because she had worried a great deal about her daughter’s morals and was glad she was settling down at last and with such a nice, gentlemanly, if somewhat superior, rodent.
Moral: Do what you can and enjoy life as much as possible, but you won’t be able to change much of anything if you’re a rat, beyond ruining a few experiments.
Marianna Scheffer Copyright 2001