I left the pub and staggered down the street. It was dark and the streetlights lit me in pools of orange. As I stepped out of each glowing net, the darkness engulfed me until I reached the next. I would almost collapse as I lurched into the light each time, the sweet relief of visibility almost too much to bear.
This went on for some time as I meandered down the deserted high street. Past the closed signs, the locked doors, the shutters, til eventually I reached the alleyway. I’d walked down this footpath a thousand times at least; probably more. I knew it like the back of my hand. Like the inside of my mind. Like a memory. But that night was different.
The pathway wasn’t lit, so I couldn’t see much, but with the glow from my torch I could make out the sticks and stones that littered the path. I felt the crisp packets and beer cans discarded by revellers around my feet as I dragged my legs behind me, wading through the sea of filth.
I reached a clearing among the rubbish and I saw something twitching. Something moving. I couldn’t tell what it was, so I edged closer with caution. It seemed to be going in a hundred different directions at once, but failing to move. I raised my torch towards it to gain some visibility and almost collapsed with fright.
Rats; a dozen or more, bound together by their tails. It was hideous; I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I leant in closer to get a better understanding of what I was viewing. They were trying to escape, and just pulling themselves apart. I could sense their individual desires. They knew where they needed to be, but their matted tails pulled them back together again, putting a stop to their attempts to flee. They knew nothing of their tethering; to them an invisible box was holding them back.
You could see the panic in their faces as they tried to come to terms with their entrapment. When they stood still, they could dream and feel free, they could never reach where they wanted, achieve their dreams or plug the depth of yearning in their souls.
Before I knew what was happening I was on the ground among them. In the filth, pain, fury and frustration. They were all over me, and they had become me. My own tales spun and bound within me, tearing me apart. My dreams, my hopes, my ambitions at odds with the desperate reality of my life.
I was each rat. Just as they longed to be free from their painful tethering, I longed to run from my tethered existence, bound to a desk. A sofa. A television. A bar stool. Was this all I was to be? When that miracle of creation took place all those years ago, was this its end?
The thoughts tore around my mind, pulling me in different directions, ripping me to pieces. My hands were in my hair tearing clumps away from my skin. The rats were clawing into one another, ripping the flesh from their brothers and sisters in a desperate attempt to flee.
And who was I? Who am I? Who am I supposed to be?
I clawed at my skin and it broke under my nails. Dark red, sticky liquid poured over my hands and arms. The rats recognised me as one of their own. They fed from my wounds as I lay among them on the dirty ground. We were one and the same. My body, their tails; their bodies, my tales.
I lay, writhing among their sorry mess, sobbing at what I had become. I felt as though I’d been with them for hours, all night. Surely the brightness of the sun would save me from this torture? In the cold light of day I would return to blissful contentment. Ignorance. Acceptance.
And then I awoke. My heart pounding, my chest heavy. I looked for the markings of that exquisite torture of the night before. I was surprised to learn my hands were no longer marked with bloody and gravel. The throbbing pain in my mind had gone. I looked up and found I was no longer in the alleyway. I was on a barstool. I’d been woken by the call for last orders.
What was happening to me?
What day was it?
Was that real?
I swiftly dispatched the remainder of my drink, which sat warm next to my resting head, and exited. I stumbled, left out of the boozer and ran to to find my brothers and sisters. I turned into the alleyway and made my way through the muck to the clearing. But there was no trace of them.
Had I imagined this beast? Was my mind depraved enough to create such a creature? Such torment and carnage? Surely not. No. I had seen it. I had toiled among the rats. I was them and they were me.
I sank to my knees and dug through the trash around me. But there was nothing of them left. No flesh, no blood, no shit or piss. I’m not ashamed to say I wept. I’d lost family. A part of my soul. Hot tears streamed down my face, and I lay on the cold ground.
After some time had passed, I trudged home. I slept awfully. My brain continued to tear itself apart as I tried to rest. My usual numbness and ignorance had abandoned me. How could I return to normality now the rat king had opened my eyes to our shared plight? I needed to sever my tales to let my thoughts run free. To become the man I needed to be, I had to cut away the baggage.
I could no longer live as the rat king.