I have been here before.
For the second time I find myself surrounded by stairs, up, down, sideways, there is no direction- or perhaps there is every direction- only hard , white, shadowless steps spiraling into the shifting distance, outlined with black stripes and handrails. It is silent but I can sense an echo nonetheless; I bet drums would sound really good if they were recorded here, I think stupidly.
My musing is answered by the gentle padding of footsteps and the whispering rustle of soft cloth as it glides across the endless stairs. I turn around and see what I expect to see- a human-sized grey rat, walking upright and clad in a white satin robe, the left sleeve rolled up and pinned at the shoulder. It's eyes appear black at first glance but as it nears me I see that they are of the deepest brown, there is an undeniable intelligence buried there and it is through those eyes that it speaks to me.
"You came back", intones the creature matter-of-factly.
"Well, yeah," I reply, " I'm not sure why but yeah...I'm back."
"Look at me", it commands," you know me."
I obey. I notice that my interlocutor has only one ear, where the left ear should be there is only a dark, puckered hole. I have seen this rat before.
When I was in my early twenties I took a job as a short-order cook at a corner bar. Circumstances had led me to be without a home, so my boss allowed me and my friend Ron ( the dishwasher) to live in the storerooms above the restaurant. Ron kept a pair of rats in an aquarium inside his room and one day the pregnant female escaped. A few days afterward, I was downstairs in the kitchen , preparing pizzas for drunken yuppies when I heard a faint squealing sound above the roar of the exhaust fan. I turned off the fan and tracked down the sound...it was coming from the pizza oven. The top of the oven.
Standing on a pickle bucket, I looked there and saw two tiny, hairless pink blobs on the hot metal edge. There was a terrible sizzling sound mingled with the high pitched squealing and I realized that the baby rodents were being cooked alive. I scooped the pair into the palm of my hand , stepped down and ran cold water over a dish towel. I placed the infants on the wet cloth and folded it over their tiny bodies...one of them was missing two legs. It was motionless and silent but the second one writhed and cried a tiny cry of pain and fear...it's eyes were not even open yet and it was already lost. I carefully covered it , hiding it from the customers as I walked through the bar and up the stairs to the room where Ron lived. Ron had just captured the mother, she had returned to her food dish and he had snared her while she was trying to get back inside the aquarium.
" Ron! I found these. They fell out of a hole in the ceiling and landed on the oven. I think one is dead but the other is still moving...it's lost an ear, a leg and it's tail..."
"Shit!", said Ron, examining the poor animals, " they are too young to have tails yet but the leg is gone for sure...and this one isn't going to make it at all." He placed the two blobs into the glass cage with the mother...she ate the dead one but groomed and nursed the other one and it survived and grew into adulthood, missing one foreleg and one ear. It never did grow a tail.
I remember this as I study my furry companion. I have seen this rat before.
"You have grown," I state at last.
"I saw you last week. I was here."
"You went somewhere the last time. I thought you went to Rat Heaven. I had a guide then but I can't remember what it told me..."
Rats cannot smile but this is no ordinary rat. It grins with those bottomless brown eyes as it speaks to me.
"Ha! 'Rat Heaven'...that's cute. There is no such thing, there is only here."
"Please. Don't apologize. I like it here. It suits me."
The eyes tell me that this is true. Part of me wishes that there was such a place as Rat Heaven and as that thought passes through me I understand that there is.
"Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there", I venture," I think you are so close to the tree that you can't see the branches. These stairs are limbs of that tree." How did I know that?
"Ah. That is interesting but it is not why I'm here."
"Um, Ok. Why are you here?"
"To thank you."
"Thank me? What for?"
"You saved my life. I was burning and you rescued me. My children and my children's children thank you."
"Um, don't take offense but I didn't really think about it that way. Actually, I thought the whole thing was kind of..." I grasp for words.
"Well, yeah. No offense."
"None taken. Honestly, it was much worse from my perspective."
"Yeah, I can see that. Anyway, I'm glad you made it but you don't need to thank me, I just did what anyone would do and besides, you are just a rat. No offense."
The eyes grinned wider now.
" Ha! 'Just a rat'. That's a good one. It used to be true, you know."
"What are you then? A djinni? I could use a djinni right now. I have wishes."
"No...I have no wishes to grant. You have to do that yourself. I just wanted you to know that I am here and that I am grateful for what you did."
"But", I protest weakly," I didn't do anything. You got lucky is all."
"Luck", said the rat," is a joke and it is seldom funny. It was love that saved me."
"I don't love rats."
"I am not a rat."
"I don't understand."
"No one does but everyone will. When you find the answer I will ask the question."
"Now I really don't understand."
The eyes change color slightly, lighter, darker, lighter, shadows moving inside shadows. The unseen smile grows warm and friendly.
"You don't need to understand. Just know that I love you."
"Ah...OK. But you are just a..."
"I think that I have a lot to learn."
"Yes. Yes, you do. You will. Now go."