Ratspeak is the the shrill and sly language of the rats of New York City’s subway. When a curious boy is granted his wish to speak and understand the secret language of the rats, he brings a curse upon his home. “Ratspeak” is a standalone story by the acclaimed author of Vassa in the Night (Tor Teen, September 2016).
At the darkest end of the subway platform after one in the morning, a song. Endless notes pipe out of the tunnel, and I know they mean something, but what? Those voices are talking about me, I’m sure of it, smug even in the knowledge that I can’t understand them. They’ve tormented me like this all my life, off and on, but recently it’s been happening a lot more frequently. I strain to listen through the surface to the meaning beneath. To make it out. I can’t.
“Van,” says my brother. “We’re on the wrong platform. This is the downtown side.” He tugs on my arm.
But I’m so close. I’ve caught a single drop of comprehension: Wednesday. I’m almost sure of it. Wednesday what?
“Oh, for Chrissake, Van. Enough, enough, enough. You can space your ass off when we get home.”
I don’t have a prayer of understanding them while Zach keeps jabbering at me. “Okay,” I say. “I’m coming.” But I stand and peer down the tracks, to where the shine reflected from red and blue signal lights smears and the shadows heave and rumple. How vast is the choir tonight?
“Every time I think you’ve maxed out your potential for weirdness,” Zach snaps, “you find a new goddamn way to dial it up.”
The rats have been listening to us, of course, and for them our language presents no difficulty. They break off singing to laugh at me. A patter of chopped soprano barks, but I know perfectly well that most of their laughter flies far above the range of human hearing.
“Van seriously acts like he’s hearing things. I mean things that aren’t there. I really think you should take him in for some kind of evaluation.” Zach is talking to our mom, never suspecting how his voice sifts through the wall to me.
“He just lacks focus. He’s always been like that. I’m sure they’d be only too happy to diagnose him with some disorder du jour, but I don’t see the necessity of drugging the poor boy up simply for being a late bloomer.”
“It’s worse than that,” Zach insists. “It’s worse than that. He’s focused on something. It’s just something no one else can hear.”
Oh, you hear it, Zach. You don’t choose to pay attention, that’s all. And once you’re asleep I’ll get up very softly and slip back to the tunnels, where I can listen to ratsong, shrill and sly. To ratspeak, its tones poised on the very brink of revelation.
Above ground it must be dawn, a Sunday. The station is depopulated except for three wasted college boys gathered in a tight circle, stamping brutally at the ground. I almost ignore them, but then I hear the peeping. It’s a young rat, hardly more than a baby, and whichever way it darts their boots pound down and cut off its escape. Its voice jerks up in terror, so high that I can only feel the frequency as a skittering on my eardrums. It might be years before I get another chance like this.
Those guys are bigger than me—most people are—and they don’t react when I run at them. I slam one sideways just as his foot is in midair, so that he can’t catch himself before he falls. The baby rat pops over his ankle and disappears into a hole.
They start beating me, but lethargically. It’s late, after all. When the wind of an oncoming train peels through the tunnel they lose interest in me and leave me on the floor.
“Hey,” says the rat, in song-inflected English, as it treads on my spilled hair. “I wanted to thank you? For saving my child?”
I smile. I’m not too injured to get up but I’ve been lying here, very still, waiting just for this. “No problem.”
“So, you know, I owe you one? What can I do for you?”
“Ratspeak,” I say, even before the rat has finished talking. “I want to understand.”
She scampers around my head to peek into my pupils, tipping her little face sideways. “You, um, you really don’t want that. Trust me on this one.”
“I do,” I say. “It’s what I’ve always wanted. All my life, I’ve wanted to be like you.”
“It’s a tonal language,” the rat says. “It’s very difficult. We sing to mean. And besides, we’re pretty sensitive about our privacy. This thing about being like us? Ratspeak won’t do it. Not on the table.”
I just stare. Black eyes like condensation on a wineglass and the white stir of whiskers. A nick in her left ear.
“So, how about something else?” the rat offers. “Like, sometime when you least expect it, a horde of us sweeps in and saves your life? Now, that’ll come in handy! Maybe sooner than you think!”
I stare. Beyond the rat extends damp cement; above her sag green paint petals and stippled waterfalls of tar. A Macy’s ad with the model’s eyes hacked out. Rats are honorable animals; now that she’s made the offer, she’s bound to follow through. I only have to be patient.
“Or, you know, we can prophesy. With deadly accuracy. Let me give you some stock tips instead. You—or, um, your heirs, just in case anything happens to you—will be filthy rich in no time.”
I stare and say nothing. She bores her gaze into me, encouraging me to change my mind. Her determination and mine press on each other. Her dun fur is barely visible, brushed on smoky shadows.
“Anyway,” she pursues after a long silence, “if you can understand us, it ruins the surprise. Aren’t you Ivan Beck? ’Cause if you are, that’s awkward!”
“Ratspeak,” I insist. “That’s what I want. It’s driving me crazy that I can’t understand you.” I’d like to add, I can tell you’ve been talking about me, all this past year especially, but that seems too vain. It’s not that I’ve ever heard a rat say my name, not until just now, but I’ve sensed myself implied.
The rat sighs. “Fine. If that’s the way you want it. Just don’t blame me that you didn’t take me up on my other offers, because they were really very nice.”
It takes me a moment to recognize that her last sentence was sung rather than spoken, her meaning inherent in the twists and intervals between each squeak. A language so subtle and silken that it renders communication as I’ve known it obsolete, vulgar, and unbearably crude.
“I won’t,” I sing back. So beautifully, nine-tenths of my voice suspended high above the limits of human hearing. “I promise. Thank you!”
She doesn’t say you’re welcome or even goodbye. The leer she gives me is sniffly and slanted; in no way an encouraging smile.
There’s no sign of them, no cheep or scuffle, until Zach and I head home after school on Monday. Once we pass through the turnstiles I spot two rats posted on either side of the stairs down to the platform. The smaller of them looses a frantic whistle as our eyes meet. “He’s coming, he’s coming! Everybody shut up, shut up, get out of earshot! It’s Ivan Beck, who stubbed his nose on the intimate burrows of our poesy! Don’t let the jerk snuffle secrets that were never meant for him!”
The clicking of a thousand tiny claws and the whisk of fur resounds fuzzy-echoed from the tunnel as the rats stampede away. I look at the sentry. His nose twitches defiantly. “I don’t mean any harm,” I sing. “I wouldn’t tell your secrets, not to anyone.” I suppose I’d thought that knowing ratspeak would win me some sort of entry into their society, but this nasty little rodent doesn’t seem to see it that way. “I’m trying to be your friend.”
“Good luck with that,” trills the rat. He turns away.
“I gave up so much to be able to speak your language! I was offered vast wealth!” I howl. Zach is gaping at me wide-eyed while I fight down rising tears.
“Oh, about that,” sings the rat, with a sidelong glance over his shoulder. “You’ll find when you reach home that your mother was fired from her job today. That her bank accounts have been gutted by identity thieves, that the mortgage check for your house has bounced, the pipes have burst, the walls have turned translucent and flaccid. Also, her fingers have transformed into live mice and she requires very expensive surgery that isn’t covered by your insurance. But if you’d care to trade, we might still be persuaded to take the gift of ratspeak back and arrange to make you fabulously rich in its place?”
I open my mouth and an empty whine comes out. I’d thought that ratspeak could convey any sentiment, no matter how rarefied. But it proves unequal to the hard gag of resentment in my throat. I switch to English. “I earned the right to ratspeak fair and square! And now you’re trying to blackmail me into giving it up?”
People stare and Zach backs away to study a movie poster.
“Not at all,” sings the rat. “Believe me, we deeply regret the disasters that have befallen your family—quite coincidentally—so soon after you made your intrusive request of my aunt, even after she advised you to back the hell off. We regret still more all the truly terrifying visitations we haven’t thought up yet. It’s especially sad since you’ve been slated to be the guest of honor at this year’s spring ball ever since you were a mewling little turnover. Traditionally we would compensate your family—for your, uh, participation—with three generations of the most magnificent good fortune. But since we’re displeased with you, Ivan, we’re rethinking that. Smell isn’t everything, I always say.”
“Spring ball?” I ask, in my most polite ratspeak. I’m confused but it does sound as if we’re finally getting somewhere. “There’s a spring ball?”
“And that’s all you care about,” warbles the rat. “Not a thought for your poor mother!” He leaps up and slips through a crack in the tiles.
Zach drags ten paces behind me and looks doggedly away whenever I turn back to him. I hadn’t entirely believed the rat, but as we approach our rowhouse the sag of its bricks is instantly apparent. A dull blur of daylight penetrates the walls, revealing silhouettes of furniture akimbo on the hammocking floors within. Our mother sits weeping on the stoop, while crazy old Derrick from next door stands screaming at her; the houses are attached, and Derrick claims ours is ripping chunks out of his adjoining wall. Shanks of sky surround his TV. Something about lawyers, he’s shouting, something about liability. A patch of mottled lilac skin gleams through a hole in his boxers.
Our mother covers her face with both hands, and her fingers squirm and flick their tails in sympathy. Dainty white mice, her fingers are, not the dirty, drab kitchen kind.
They’re really very cute, in fact. So that’s something. Maybe things aren’t so bad, and I don’t have any reason to feel guilty. Maybe the rats just have kind of an indirect approach to welcoming me; couldn’t this be their way of saying we’re all family? I mean, mice are still rodents. It’s practically an honor.
Zach helps her up and leads her inside, scowling at Derrick and never even glancing at me.
“Van is talking to rats!” Zach bursts out once he’s brought our mother some tea. She’s settled into an armchair canted steeply leftward; her face is still puffy from crying but she’s pulled herself together now. “He started squeaking at one in the subway. Then he yelled at it about blackmail. He is way too disturbed to be running around free.”
“Blackmail?” our mother asks. She glances at me where I sit on the floor, coloring and pretending to pay no attention. “And what did the rat do?”
“Squeaked back.” Zach sounds defensive, now. “It must have felt threatened. Since Van was acting so crazy. Doesn’t that count as some kind of weird cruelty to animals?”
Our mother fans out her wriggling mousy fingers, as if to say that stranger things exist than a boy whose profound sympathy for the natural world lets him comprehend the speech of beasts. “It’s more the blackmail part that worries me, in view of everything that’s happened today. Van? What’s going on?”
“The rat was just trying to act tough,” I explain. “He can’t actually do anything.”
She purses her lips. “You understand that we’re facing some serious problems, Van, don’t you? And that it’s time for us to pull together as a family? Rats are exceptionally intelligent animals. I hope you realize that?”
“They’re hardly just intelligent,” I say, indignantly. “They’re the epitome of brilliance and artistry!” I’ve always suspected what incredible geniuses rats are—I was a sensitive child, and I noticed stuff like that—but knowing ratspeak has given me a completely new appreciation for their culture. The whole universe becomes song, once you just know the right notes.
“Then you do understand how important it is not to offend them? Ivan?”
“Oh, God, Mom. Not you too!” Zach snorts and storms out of the room.
Meanwhile, a plumber clunks solemnly in the bathroom, replacing the burst pipes. Our entire basement is five feet deep in water; maybe that’s what’s dissolving the house. The walls have a gummy, half-opaque milkiness like melting glue. Enough afternoon light shines through them that I can make out embryonic somethings with bulbous heads and coiled limbs embedded in what was once insulation and plaster. As I watch the dim forms start to stir, even the flowers vining up the wallpaper warp, pivoting to stare glassy-eyed at the jellied creatures quickening inside.
“They should be flattered,” I tell her. “Who has ever admired rats more than I do? So why are you picking on me?” I grab my pad and markers and get up to leave, hiking my shoulders to show how she’s hurt me.
“There’s nothing wrong with being the noble idiot of the family,” our mother says to my back. “But in that case noble would be the operative word, Ivan.”
I make a point of slamming doors, but they’re too squishy to bang. I make a point of sobbing loudly, locked in my puddling room.
Then, once I think she and Zach aren’t listening anymore, I sing: tripping arias, cascades of squeal. Because I heard the rats mention—that must be the night of the ball! Naturally they wouldn’t care about school nights. Only two days from now! So I’d better get practicing.
If I can perform ratspeak like I deserve it, like a sensitive virtuoso of pipe and vibrato, then surely they’ll be impressed. They’ll appreciate the effort I’ve put into mastering their tongue, accept me as one of them, and set the house to rights. Right?
By Tuesday morning, the creatures sunk inside the walls are starting to poke through: a clawed, scaly toe here, a yellowish joint there, with flesh lucid to the bone. They still don’t resemble much of anything I’ve seen before, in any zoo, though they do seem to be acquiring more well-defined characteristics. And size. They’ve grown a hell of a lot in the night. The house has now sagged so much that the ceiling dents tongueishly from the pressure of my head when I stand.
By the time I walk into the kitchen, dragging the ceiling-dimple with me as I go, Zach is already screaming. “You’ve done this, Van! You and your damned rats! And you think you can avoid the blame by acting like a retard, but you are very fucking wrong.”
Flaccid swags cover my eyes and he probably can’t see me well either, but I make a face at him and turn toward the refrigerator. It takes an effort to tug the fridge door out of the wall just starting to engulf it, but I can’t eat my cereal without milk. “Where’s Mom?”
“You know, I heard you squeaking away last night. Doing your rat noises. Like some kind of perverted radiator or something.”
“Where’s Mom, Zach?”
“Oh, you know. Out desperately trying to find us somewhere to live besides a homeless shelter. That and a job. No biggie.”
“We can live right here,” I say. “It’s nice here.” But really, after tomorrow, I won’t be coming back anymore. I’ll live in the tunnels, a prince among rats, just as I’ve always dreamed; I obviously deserve better than prosaic humanity. My arpeggios last night were off the charts.
Zach taps his fingernail irritably against a spiked protuberance in the wall; it might be anything from a chin to genitalia. It twitches.
“It’s good you like it here,” Zach says. “Because when Mom does find an apartment, I’m sure it will be very small.”
I decide against going anywhere today. I need to work on my singing, and if I go outside there’s no guarantee the rats won’t hear me. Like they say, that would ruin the surprise.
The ceiling’s so low by evening that I sit on the floor. There’s a bit more room by the walls, so I scoot back into the air pocket there, trying to ignore the toes prodding at my ribs. I sing, swept up in each twirl and glide of the music. I compose an epic: the story of a boy whom the rats despise until he comes to their ball. The dancers are attacked by wolves and the boy proves to be such a great hero that the rat princess falls hopelessly in love with him, and the rats admit how wrong they were and crown him king. Then they build his mother a magnificent palace out of all the tin cans and candy wrappers dropped over decades on the subway tracks. His older brother goes insane from envy and throws himself in front of a train, and everyone is happy.
I can’t open the fridge anymore but I manage to dig peanut butter and crackers out of a bottom cabinet, so that’s what I eat. Rats love peanut butter.
It gets late, but my mom and Zach never come home. Eventually I fall asleep right where I am, many-jointed legs from the wall cuddling me in a fidgety cocoon.
When I wake the light is brick-tinted Vaseline. Tendrils and cilia, pincers and quills, nudge and investigate me on all sides. The view is familiar, if blurred: my same old neighborhood in Queens, with its bodegas and the Armenian restaurant on the corner. It takes me a long moment to understand: I’ve been pulled inside the wall. The creatures have considerately pierced a narrow passage to the outside so I can breathe, but I’m finding it hard to move.
“Hey, guys?” I say in English. “You know you have to let me out by evening, don’t you? I’m the guest of honor at the rats’ spring ball tonight!”
There’s no response, so I try it again in ratspeak; not that these are rats, but maybe one of them was trained as a diplomat or something. Still no reaction. I’m getting hungry and I need to pee.
I switch to kicking and flailing. All it does is make the wall jiggle.
I can see our furniture, suspended like me in a giant block of slime. I guess the rooms have all collapsed. There’s a constellation of diamond shapes above me and after a pause I realize they must be tiles from our upstairs bathroom, with the bathtub hovering in their midst.
A few minutes later, I notice a shift in the view. The whole house has started to crawl.
Our progress is sluggish. I drift in and out of queasy sleep until sunset, when a sharp change of angle wakes me. The house has compressed itself into a sloppy baguette and begun oozing down the subway stairs. I find myself tipped nearly upside down. A pair of lobstery claws grips me tenderly by the ankles, holding me high enough that my head doesn’t smack the steps.
We appear to have picked up one or two more human passengers—accidentally, no doubt—but I’m not sure the creatures in here have extended them the courtesy of air holes. I hear dim screams as our dense medium splits around the turnstiles and re-congeals on the other side, see hazy forms rushing away from us. With an immense squelching the house pours itself onto the tracks.
It’s so kind of our home to bring me here! And just in time for the ball! I suppose I’m not looking my freshest, but now that I think about it a little grime is probably the fashionable thing. I wouldn’t want to look like I was trying too hard.
We plow up the tunnel, wrenched signal lights and ruptured tracks in our wake. It starts to get very dark.
“Hi,” sings a thin voice in my ear. “Welcome to the ball, Ivan. We’ve met before, by the way, but you didn’t ask my name then, and I won’t be telling you now.” I think I recognize the lilting of the mother rat, the one whose baby I saved; she must have dug her way in here. Now she should be happy to see me.
“Good evening!” I sing, trying not to sound too excited. “I’m happy to be here. But, uh, I might need help getting out of the, um, house?”
“Nah,” she trills. “Think of it as a venue change. You’ll be staying right where you are. We’re the ones who will be dancing, thanks. And—wow, there’s no tactful way to say this, is there?—you should know we’ve decided against eating you.”
“Eating me?” I say, startled back into English. It’s so utterly dark down here that, I don’t know, maybe sound waves can’t carry properly. “Um, why not?”
“Well, it is traditional. At the end of the ball, we devour the guest of honor. And a lot of us thought we should carry on as usual. But then we’d be basically eating the ratspeak inside you, and that made a lot of us squicky. Also, nobody really wanted to do the three-generations-of-luck for your family thing. Under the circumstances.”
“I see.” I have enough self-possession back that I manage to sing it, though not nearly as well as when I was practicing. I’m thinking fast.
“But we are totally okay with letting your house spit you out in front of an oncoming train. And if things that aren’t us happen to eat you afterwards, then that’s their problem.”
“You mean like roaches?” I squeal. Is that how they treat a maestro among ratspeakers?
I can’t see the rat at all, but I can feel a calculating flick of her whiskers. “Disgusting, right? But, you know, we might still be open to a trade.”
“A trade,” I sing, mulling it over. I guess knowing ratspeak hasn’t done me a lot of good. “Maybe.”
“Like, we could save your life, send you home, and put everything back the way it was before you had the presumption to go sticking your paws where they don’t belong? How’s that for a deal? We’ll even throw in some extra good luck for your mom, and make your brother kind of frog-faced. You did rescue my baby, and even if you did it for grossly selfish reasons that’s worth something. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?”
I sigh. Even after everything we’ve been through together, the rats still don’t understand me. I have a vision now of the wild, wild waltz: of my hand in paw after paw after paw. Of how I’ll stay with them, with all of them, more deeply than I’d ever dared imagine. And the only roadblock is the secret language lilting inside me? It’s amazing how something that seemed so important can turn out to be negotiable. “I’m not trading my ratspeak for that. That’s got nothing to do with what I want.”
“Oh, no?” she sings. Ever so sweetly. Her tiny pink tongue flicks at her lips; she sniffs at me and smiles. “No, Ivan, really?”
“Ratspeak” copyright © 2016 by Sarah Porter
Art copyright © 2016 by Anna & Elena Balbusso