It was cold in the lab and Celine wasn’t prepared. The icy air scratched with shimmer fingers, insinuating into any clothing crack. She’d thought the tension would keep her warm. Nervous energy agitated through her, twanging like the strings of a marionette. She’d dressed in light layers, the way her mother was always suggesting.
Celine went at night, a thrill time between shadows, when the world was not the same. Wearing all black, to avoid being seen, she let herself in through the hole in the fence and then a window that didn’t shut all the way. Darkness layering over darkness was all that could be seen. It was good to be small, no matter what anyone said. The physical exertion surprised her. She’d already scraped her knee – a woe which had not troubled her since childhood – and broken a nail. Her ribs hurt from resting on the shallow sill.
..........The lab was not at all as she would have supposed. But then none of it was. In her mind, it would smell – of fear and sadness and something baser to remind her of nature and degradation. But not so. The air was clean. Each animal had fresh bedding and full water bottles. The spaces they lived in were large. They had tiny snuggle toys. As she dragged her finger across the bars of the cage, her unsettled eyes took in stimulating pictures pinned against the inside.
..........It was all wrong. Kept like animals, she thought, although now she knew what that meant. She was taken aback, no doubt, but determined to continue with her plan.So what if their pelts had been brushed clean, until they shone, evident even by the low lighting from the underside of the cupboards? An animal shouldn’t be caged.
She wore gloves: brave but smart. No matter how cuddly they might seem, no rat wants to be moved in a cat carrier. Even if it was brand new, without the scent of a previous occupier. Their bodies writhed and swarmed together in a blur of fur. They squealed and bit, clawing and crawling over one another with nauseating undulations.
Getting out was harder because the carrier was not just bulky but heavy now. The animals squealed and snapped their jaws, scratching through the air mesh. Their little claws were like hands, pink on the underside, viciously sharp.
..........The night was against her; wind buffeted the carrier, banging it uncomfortably against her thigh and tripping her, as she stumbled once more through the hole in the fence. The movement of the animals swung the box against her. Her arm ached. She was tired. The pocket of her hoodie snagged on a claw of wire. She heard a dog’sbark, sudden and blunt, behind her. Shot through with energy, she ran.
...........Celine pushed the carrier into the boot of her father’s car and rested for a moment with her eyes closed, her hands ready at the wheel, trying not to hear the shrieks behind. Tiny claws rattled the bars – and so it was with the beating of her heart. All was anguish.
That night, she took the car back, dropping the keys where she’d found them on the front hall table. Sweating and panting, she released the prisoners at the back of her parents’ large garden, where the trailing willows lapped the grass and dropped into the water’s edge. The land rolled here, with secret holes beneath the undergrowth, crowded with overlapping leaves. There was nowhere for them near her flat. The rats swarmed in a shoal of liquid darkness, until they spread, separate and individual, scrabbling and slipping down the bank of the burn.
The first rat she found, identifiable by the blue plastic tag secured around its front, left paw, had been clawed, its intestines pulled through skin and fur. The gape writhed with maggots and, contemplating this, Celine was nearly sick. Frightened that her mother would see, she steeled herself and kicked its body into the burn, where it sank amid gloomy bubbles. She scrubbed her plimsoll against the lush turf to clean it.
.........The second rat was headless – the body concertinaed as though without bone. The third was ripped apart and laid open, skin and fur flapping like clothes around damp insides. The smell of blood hung heavy in the humidity of the summer garden at night. In the days that followed, more carcasses surfaced from the borders of foliage and flower, lying still – a final vulnerability – as though sleeping off the horror amid a tranquil Eden.