She came to Fatum two days after the rats. Her feet spattered with mud, her face round and healthy. She had no hair but wrapped her head in cloths of many colors, dyes we hadn’t seen in months. Plague makes all things scarce.
We first heard about the coming of the rats from a tinker. She entered our village and stayed at your inn. That was two weeks before. Her name was Glorys. The night she arrived, she told us about the rats as you wiped the bar with a stained cloth.
“I came from Chiad’ow.” Some of us knew the name. It was a town twelve miles north. Sipping from glasses and cups, we waited for her to continue. “I was going to settle there, wait out the winter with plenty of business and a strong roof over my head, a strong wall around me and my cart.”
Glorys lowered her head. She was in her fifties, her skin betraying her origin from the north. She stood out in our midst, pale and wrinkled by care. Her eyes were a disconcerting blue.
“Why did you leave?” one of us asked. At the bar, you’d stopped paying attention to your work, your gaze fixed on the tinker.
Glorys shook her head, a small, trembling motion matched by her hands as they tried to clasp the drink you poured her. “They came,” she said.
We all leaned in to hear the next words.
Glorys moved her cart into your stable. In the first week, we heard little, but travel from the north had started to increase. Chaid’ow was facing famine—and something else too unspeakable for travelers to relay as they passed through our village. As the days passed, the temperature dropping each night, refugees from Chiad’ow came to stay, then from Darna, about seven miles away from Fatum.
Plague, we whispered in the streets. You opened rooms that hadn’t been filled in years. Your daughter moved in with her brother to free up space.
I’m sorry about her. Your son was old enough to escape.
When the rooms filled, some of us opened our homes, for a price. With winter setting in, it did not pay to support extra bodies without recompense. I took in a weaver who paid her way by crafting marvelous woven goods. When I had all I needed, she moved to a neighbor’s house, supplying another of us with the means to survive the cold. She did not stay, however. Not when she—like all of us—heard that Treas had been struck, not two miles north. Then, she left. The refugees from Chiad’ow, from Darna, moved on. Some arrived with scratches on their hands, bites on their necks. These injuries healed before they left. But we worried, when Treas happened.
Some of us chose to leave before the rats came. You stayed, and so did I. We have weathered many things in our lives. I wish now that you had gone, taken your daughter and fled with the rest. But we didn’t know what would happen, after the rats.
When they came to Treas, we knew what we faced. Stores overrun, thatch roofs ruined, vestries profaned. The rats brought filth and disease into Treas, and those that had waited—like us—soon found themselves at Fatum’s gate.
We did not have room, so many moved on from there. A few slept in the streets, wincing as winter’s teeth bit into their flesh at night. In the morning, some were dead. Perhaps they were luckiest.
The next day, the rats came.
The day after, many of us fled, taking what food we could wrest from black claws and yellow teeth. Those of us who stayed hid what food we could in attics and cellars, along with the children. We hoped they would stay safe together. We shouldn’t have put them there. We shouldn’t have weighed their value together.
You barred your inn and stayed. I let the rats in, giving up or wearing out, I don’t know. I wanted to stay with you.
The day after that, she came.
She came from the south, her bald head wrapped in beautiful cloth, her round face free from dirt. She walked barefoot despite the cold, and when she arrived, it started to snow. What few of us remained peered from windows gloved in frost, our breath fogging a screen between us.
She walked down the middle of the street. The rats scurried to the sides. Were they afraid? She walked to the church and disappeared inside. We waited. We knew there was no one in the church, save the rats.
I don’t know how much time passed before you came out of your inn, days unshaven, your hair matted to your head. We all watched as you followed her path, until you too were consumed by the church’s waiting doors.
You came out first, she following. In the street, you introduced her to us.
“This is Piper. She can banish the rats.”
She acknowledged our gazes, nodding to the many eyes staring from many windows. Some of us had scratches and bites that took longer than they should to heal. We stared at her, with her bare feet and bare head, and we were too tired to hope.
But hope is a treacherous emotion. I could see it on your face as you stood beside her—hope for your children, hope for Fatum.
If only we hadn’t let it in. Let her in.
Piper raised her hands and spoke. “I have come to save you from the plague that destroys you. I came too late to Chaid’ow, Darna, and Treas. But Fatum still has hope.” There. She said it, and we felt it. Treacherous, treacherous word. “Some of your stores remain, enough to weather the winter, though there will be shortage.”
Those of us who remained knew this. We had lost much to the rats. But our underground caches were harder for claws to reach. The rats may have smelled them, but they would have to dig. And the chambers were stone. Could they reach them? Perhaps eventually. If nothing drew them away, they may stay in Fatum for weeks, months, chewing and digging and scratching their way to the last of our food while we sat helpless, starving and freezing in our separate homes.
You smiled—actually smiled—at her, and I was worried by your trust. She was a traveler from the south, and she promised something impossible.
She smiled back at you and our fates were sealed in that exchange. Piper drew something from her multi-colored clothing, and we squinted through our windows, trying to see what it was that she promised would drive the rats away. For our benefit, she held it up.
It was a flute—truly little more than a whistle, so small it could have been the key to the church’s door. Watching us watch her, Piper brought the flute to her lips, and blew.
We did not hear anything, but something rang just outside of our senses, a tone we felt against our eardrums and eyes. But the rats.
The rats, already restless in Piper’s presence, twitched and churned, shrieking in something like pain. Their cries took the place of the flute’s music in our ears, and we listened as they suffered as we had.
But they did not seem to be dying. The longer Piper played, the more frenzied the rats became, fighting with each other, climbing the walls of our shops and homes
And then the cats came.
From roofs, from attics, from cellars and alleys, black cats poured onto the street. They leapt on the rats, the disoriented beasts hardly able to defend themselves. It was not really a fight.
The cats broke the rats’ backs, bit off their heads, chewed away their claws and slashed through their fur. We huddled in our homes and watched the cats kill every rat. Then, when it was done, the cats settled down to eat, their payment for the service they rendered.
Piper lowered her flute and looked at you. Awe and disgust battled over your face, but at last you smiled. You, like us, thought we were saved. You laughed, sheer joy twitching from your mouth, and you asked her what payment she wished for killing the rats.
She slipped her little flute out of sight. “My payment is your survival. You will live, because of me.”
Barefooted, she walked away. Past countless rat carcasses, past the feasting of countless cats. She walked through the gate, and we never saw her again in Fatum.
With the danger past we went to the hidden places of our houses, the places we had stowed our most precious, most delicate things.
I heard you cry out first.
You tore the inn apart looking for your daughter. The rest of us did, too. We searched for the children in every house, in the shops, in the church. We did not, at first, realize what had happened. As we rushed and screamed and cried, the black cats withdrew to quieter corners to eat their rats.
When at last we gave up, or grew too tired to continue that horrible day, Glorys counted the children missing. Thirty-one. She sat in the street and wept. Through her garbled mumbling, you understood when she said, “The cats.”
Glorys had counted the cats. She had counted thirty-one.
We searched the streets, kicking away the rats and shining lanterns into alleyways. But cats are reclusive creatures, and many had left already. We found just twelve cats, each identical to the other. Still, we locked them in the inn and wept the names of the children one-by-one, straining for recognition. When the cats did nothing but meow and try to escape, one scratching me as I tried to hold it, you swore. The grief in your eyes was dangerous when you decided to kill the twelve cats.
We did not know how to stop you, immobilized in our own horror and disbelief. You snatched at the nearest creature. It spat and hissed, drawing blood from you before at last you had it cornered against the bar.
I will never free my mind from what next occurred.
We felt, once more, that tone outside of hearing, that whistle more in pressure than in sound. As I watched you grasp the cat by its neck, your fist bleeding and tightening, your skin paled. Your fingers shrank away, your nails sharpening into claws as you fell from your clothes. The last I saw of you, true you, was the anguish in your eyes as they grew bulbous and wet in your lengthening skull.
None of us screamed. Perhaps a part of us expected this, had mourned you the moment you spoke of murder. We watched in silence as the cats ripped you apart, the last rat to die in Fatum.
We barely survived that winter. The stone store caches ran out in late April, and we managed to trade for the last of our food before the crops grew again. Though we were hungry, deprived of protein when the dried meat ran out in February, none of us considered killing a single cat.
Many of them stayed through the winter, finding warmth in attics and barns. They kept the mice at bay, and maybe some of us realized the patterns of their movements. They hovered around the homes of families who once tended children.
I know one thing. We would not have survived, were there thirty-one more mouths to feed. The store caches could not have supported so many for so long. Now as spring at last shows its face, I sit at my window and look at your inn.
As I watch, a black cat hops up on the step and lies down to bask in the tentative sun.
Marisca Pichette lives in Western Massachusetts, where she grew up exploring the woods and fields around her home. She writes speculative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In her writing, she attempts to tackle social issues in an imagined setting, and works to highlight marginalized voices.