Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Wharf Rat

With apologies to all the Wind in the Willows fans.

The Wharf Rat

The tide was beginning to fall. Brown water drained out of shattered windows and flowed away between towering steel skyscrapers. The lowering sun lit the concrete canyons, turning the water briefly gold.

On the twenty-third floor of the Chrysler building there was movement. A sleek dark form perched atop a rusting file cabinet and peered down, bright-eyed, at the sodden carpet. Stretched, scratched, hopped down and scuttered over to the window.

The Wharf Rat leaned out over the window ledge and looked left and right. Ripples lapped just below his paws. Pigeons were walking on the ledges of nearby buildings. Nothing moved overhead.

The Rat pulled a piece of styrofoam packing crate from the half-open bottom drawer of the file cabinet, pushed it out into the water, and hopped in. He had a paddle made from a popsicle stick, but the tide was running strongly enough in these narrow channels that he did not need it. Not many blocks from his home, there was an open space where trash, trapped by the currents and the daily ebb and flow, revolved wearily in an endless eddy. Dead animals from within the dead city and debris washed from the distant land behind accumulated there. It was the Rat's feeding ground, but every day there seemed less to feed on.

A splotch of white against a building ahead resolved itself into a large Herring Gull. The Rat steered warily towards the opposite side of the channel. He was too large for a Gull to carry off without a struggle, but a struggle would overset his frail craft and leave him at the mercy of the giant misshapen fish that prowled these waters.

As he floated nearer, the Gull finished preening a wing and shook itself once, settling its feathers. “You needn't worry, little Rat,” it said, cocking its head to regard him with one yellow eye. “I won't eat you. I was only thinking how sad it is.”

“How sad what is?” asked the Rat, surprised.

“How sad that you're trapped here in this dreary place.”

The Rat had never been anywhere but the city of his birth. “It's all right here. What other places are there?”

“Ah.” The Gull stretched out the other wing and regarded it, as if to decide whether it needed preening. “Well, there's my home for instance: San Francisco. Now there's a city! I'm off there, very shortly; nothing to stay here for.”

The Rat had drawn level with the Gull by now, and there was a patch of slack water against the wall. The packing crate bobbed, turning slightly, until the Rat stuck his paddle into the water and stilled it. “What is San Francisco like?”

“Oh, towering shiny buildings on great hills. Not wrecks like these here. Beautiful parks they have in San Francisco, with enormous trees and green, green grass.” (The Rat had never seen a tree, or grass.) “The water's clean; and the air! Ah, you can't imagine how it tastes, coming off the vast empty ocean with nothing but sea salt and thunder to flavor it. During the day the air's like wine and the water's like jewels in the sun.

“And in the evening the fog comes in, and even the fog is clean and beautiful, blowing between the hills like feathers, like shreds of fur. It hides the noise of the surf and the noise of the city, but then you hear the foghorns calling to the boats and the boats calling back. Oh, it's a fine thing to be snuggled in some warm place on an night like that, listening to the horns and dreaming of morning.

“But the best part, for creatures like you and me, Rat, is the waterfront. They bring fish in on the boats, you know, and clean them there and toss the offal away for any animal that cares to claim it. They bring in crabs and shellfish and all manner of food from the sea. A Rat could grow fat just on the food that humans throw away on one dock. And if you grew tired of fish, there are restaurants nearby where an industrious Rat could forage in the garbage. A bold Rat could steal from the tables. Fine things, Rat, fine things to eat and never any shortage of them!”

The Rat listened, spellbound, as the Gull talked on. The water sank away slowly, but the Rat did not notice. The Gull was speaking of other cities now, Miami, Marseilles, Cairo, Dar-es-Salaam. Magical names, names the Rat had never heard, for places the Rat could barely imagine. He saw it all, just as the Gull described it, wharves alive with boats, coils of tarry rope, bales of goods, giant cranes working over giant ships. The smells of fish, spices, strange foods, and above all the smell of distant oceans. The Gull had been around the world; and he, the Rat, had never been anywhere except this dreary place. How narrow his life seemed now, how desolate, day after day foraging among half-rotted trash and paddling over dirty, stinking water.

He came to himself abruptly. The Gull was standing, stretching its wings, preparing to fly. Instinctively the Rat crouched lower in his boat, but no fear could keep him from calling out. “Wait! Where is San Francisco? How would I get there?”

“Oh, it's a long way, little Rat. You'd likely never see home again, you know. And it takes a clever waterman to cross oceans.”

“But what direction?”

“East,” said the Gull, “as the sun rises.” And with that it was gone, winging away through the drab sky.

Wearily the Rat pushed off from the building and drifted back out into the current. The tide was racing now, long streaks of white foam pointing east between the deserted skyscrapers. East, somewhere in the darkening East, the Gull had said San Francisco lay. A long way, surely a very long way. But the Rat was a clever waterman, was he not?

The Rat was done drifting. He paddled now, strong steady strokes, driving his little boat east on the ebb tide. The currents bore him along. The buildings fell away behind, open water spread out ahead, and still the Rat went on into the dark.

* * * * *

That night an Atlantic storm rolled in.

* * * * *

The next morning, the breeze pushed an overturned piece of styrofoam back towards the city. A grey and white form stooped over the waves; snatched a sodden dark thing from the water; and flew off, laughing harshly.

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