I have recently taken it upon myself to work my way through the internet in search of my ancestry. I call it my 1080 Project. As a wise old tech-savvy male elder of the family Rattus rattus, and with no chance of a pleasant natural death, I’m planning to avail myself of our voluntary euthanasia as soon as I’ve completed the project. I have access to that excellent metabolic poison 1080. And at least we’re never likely to go extinct like the poor old dodo. We were largely responsible for that particular vanishing, you know. We travelled on the Dutch ships and we rushed ashore on Mauritius and hopped into the dodo’s eggs. The sailors also helped by killing and eating the big old birds. Wipeout!
I have been led hither and thither electronically and now I will share with you some of the information I have unearthed. There’s the relationship I discovered between my family and a rather lovely 7th-century Belgian saint, Gertrude. She is the only saint who has been accorded rodents as her emblem. First it was just the mice, the little fellows, but then we were permitted to participate, and St Gertrude is now the patron saint of the fear of rats. She is one of those saints who is not recognised by the Vatican. Mind you, there are plenty of rats in the Vatican. There’s a popular Rattus boy-band called Squealing and Dealing that plays regular gigs in the kitchens. I just hope they can travel to perform at my funeral.
I, like most members of the family, am a zoonotic vector of certain pathogens, notably the Black Death, or bubonic plague. This disease is spread in two ways: by infected fleas from rats, or by contact with the bodily fluids of a dead plague-infected person or animal. It’s kind of hard to know the answer to the chicken-and-egg question in this case. There’s the rat flea and there’s the rat. Rat carries plague bacteria, flea feeds on rat, flea bites human. Did the flea get its measure of bacteria from a rat in the first place? Or did the rat get its juice from the flea? Anyhow, the bacteria, once they pop into the bloodstream, travel to a human lymph node or two, where they reproduce, causing swelling. Painful. You bet. What follows is – now get this – necrosis of the extremities, the appearance of black dots and bruising, fever, cramps, seizures, bloody vomit, delirium, death. Fascinating.
As you would realise, the plague played its part in history, changing societies wherever it went. It’s a matter of considerable family pride that it was one of us who carried the flea that bit Elizabeth, queen consort of Edward IV of England in 1492. Maybe you can’t place Elizabeth in the history you’re familiar with. Well, I’ll tell you. She was the granny of Henry the VIII. Got that? She came from the House of York, the one with the white roses, and she was known as the White Queen. Oh, and she was the mother of those boys who disappeared in the Tower of London. She was quite pretty, if you can believe the portraits. I like to believe.
I’m fond of art, generally. You should see the statue of St Gertrude in Berlin. It’s a big bronze thing on the Gertrude bridge, and she’s given a boy a mug of beer. He’s got a big goose with him, and – running around beneath his feet – there’s a ring of great bronze rats, and a few mice. Since people are frightened, they make up stories and legends about us, often with a grain of truth. Speaking of grain, we have sometimes changed the course of history by gobbling up all the crops. As for the legends – think of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – that’s based on a true story. He musicked the rats away, and when the city refused to pay him, he musicked away the children. Interesting! Humans do go in for revenge and retribution. I always wonder where the rats and children ended up. They couldn’t vanish into thin air, could they? Or maybe they could.
A significant rat death occurred in the royal palace of the Russian Emperor Peter III in 1762. The emperor had a big collection of toy soldiers, and used to organise scenes of warfare all over the floor. Well, one of my ancestors was making a meal of two delicious little cork sentinels who were guarding a fortress, when the emperor’s dog caught him at it and delivered him to the emperor. The emperor sentenced the old ancestor to death, constructed a gallows and executed him. Quite a good way to go.
Wherever I look on the internet, there are traces of the Rattus family. It’s amazing. And we simply love the way the planet’s heating up. They used to say that in New York City you were never more than 12 inches from a rat. That’s a great overstatement these hot days – it’s now more like six inches. Same in London. We’re even closer in Paris and Rome. By the time the planet boils, we’ll be half an inch from your ear. Nibble-nibble like a mouse (rat). There goes your ear. It really surprises me that they don’t properly canonise St Gertrude to put her more firmly in the frame when it comes to fear of rats. Not that it would do them any good, mind you. We are organised, ubiquitous, invincible. But I realise it gives humans comfort to imagine they have a powerful good woman on hand to deal with us.
I plan to travel to Berlin to die at the feet of the statue of St Gertrude, with whom I’ve become a bit obsessed. In fact it wasn’t until I discovered her that I made my final decision about the 1080. Does that sound a bit extravagant? I’ve always been known for the dramatic gesture. I will pack a bag with the precious white powder, bid farewell to the family at the cheese and butter factory, and take a jet to Germany. I hope I can organise to have Squealing and Dealing to play at the ceremony. St Gertie, here I come.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Completing the 1080 project".
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