Authors: Kate Thompson
ESS HAD A LOUSY
day at school, and not only because she had forgotten her camogie kit. Her mind refused to apply itself to the work in hand, and at every opportunity she sank into euphoric day-dream memories of the previous night. Only when she was ticked off by one of the teachers did she return her attention to the present. Her class-mates found her even more strange and dreamy than usual, and one or two of the more cynical ones took the opportunity to tease her.
âLook at Madam Tess with her head in the clouds.'
âOh. Better than the rest of us, that one. Wouldn't bother trying to communicate with her.'
âYou'd need to be on your knees to do that.'
âYou'd need a priest.'
âCome on, exalted one, hear us, we pray.'
âOh, stuff it, will you?' she said at last.
âStuff it, stuff it. Hear ye, the almighty one has spoken. We must stuff it, one and all.'
Tess moved away, but the harsh laughter continued to ring in her ears long after the other girls had forgotten the incident. She knew that they could never understand what she was going through, but their reaction made her uneasy all the same. Glorious as it was, the phoenix experience seemed to be increasing her sense of loneliness and isolation.
At home that evening, she went straight up to her room. The white rat popped his head out of the nest box where he had been sleeping away a dull day. He looked for his wheel, still bewildered by the change in his circumstances, then stood up against the bars of the cage, whiskers twitching, pink eyes peering around ineffectually for Tess.
She opened the cage door and lifted him out. He fitted snugly into the crook of her arm as she stroked his sleek coat and apologised to him for her impatience that morning.
âPoor Algernon. It wasn't your fault, was it?' Her mind drifted back to the skies above the city and she turned to the window. It was January and already dark, but she hadn't drawn her curtains yet. Although she could see nothing beyond the black squares of the glass, she knew that somewhere out there the phoenix was waiting for her. It would be another year before her fifteenth birthday, another year before she had to decide once and for all what form the rest of her life would take. But what was there to say that she couldn't make that decision sooner? Why shouldn't she make it tonight, if she wanted to? She could be free of school and home and all those human concerns that dragged at her existence. She could be out there with her friend and not a worry in the world. Once again the memory of the night before crept back, filling her with that glorious sense of lightness and well-being.
Tess jumped. Her mother was standing in the doorway. âYour tea is ready. Are you all right?'
âYes. Just day-dreaming.'
âNo. Nothing at all.' Tess stood up and slipped Algernon back into his cage, then followed her mother down the stairs.
As soon as she had finished her tea, Tess started on her homework, but when her father came home two hours later she was still struggling with a simple history project, unable to make her wandering mind concentrate. She put it away unfinished and joined her parents for dinner, the one meal of the day when they all sat down together.
The meal seemed to take for ever. Tess pushed her food around the plate and sighed a lot. Her father tried to chivvy the conversation along but it was a thankless task. As soon as she could, Tess made for the peace and quiet of her own room and settled herself to wait; she could do nothing safely until her parents were asleep. She could hear their quiet voices in the room below, and she wondered if they were talking about her, discussing her uncharacteristic loss of appetite or her dreamy mood. She wished, as she had done many times before, that she was not the only child, that she had sisters or brothers to share the responsibility with her.
The night was cold and windy, but Tess opened the window anyway and peered out. The darkness above the park was muddied by the street-lights, whose orange radiance leaked upwards like escaping heat. But beyond it, Tess could just make out a few faint stars appearing and disappearing as heavy clouds moved across the sky. As she watched, it seemed to her that one of them was a little brighter than the others, and golden in colour. She fixed her eyes on it, unsure whether it was drawing closer or whether her imagination was playing tricks. The star seemed to blink and turn. Was it moving? Did it have a tail which streamed out behind it, even a short way?
Tess's concentration was abruptly broken by a loud scratching noise from Algernon's cage. She turned and saw him trying to burrow into the corner where his wheel had been, throwing sawdust all over the cage and out through the bars.
âPoor old Algernon,' said Tess and then, in Rat, âWheel, huh?'
Algernon made no reply, but turned his attention to another corner of the cage and continued to scrabble away desperately. It was uncharacteristic behaviour, and it worried Tess. She picked up the wheel and began again to unravel the wound-up paper from around the axle. She had done most of the work that morning, and it didn't take long to free it and clear the last few shreds which were draped between the bars.
âHere you go, Algie. Is this what you want?' Tess opened the hatch in the top of the cage and reached in with the wheel in her hand. Before she could react, before she could even blink, Algernon had run up the bars of the cage, out through the hatch, and down Tess's legs to the floor. Tess stared at him in amazement. She had never seen him behave like that before. Something must have happened to him. His timidity was gone, and instead of bumbling round short-sightedly he was scuttling into the corners of the room and scratching at the carpet with his claws.
Quickly, Tess refitted the wheel and checked that it was spinning freely. Then she tidied up the floor of the cage, picked the stray shavings out of the food-bowl, and replaced the dirty water with fresh from the tap.
By this time Algernon was at the door, poking his paws into the narrow gap beneath it and gnawing at the wood with his teeth. When Tess reached down to pick him up, he jumped in fright, as though he had been taken by surprise. He had never done that before, either. He wriggled and squirmed as she pushed him through the small door of the cage, and threw himself against it when she closed it. Tess hoped it was the loss of the wheel that had upset him, and that once he found it back in its place he would settle himself down. His behaviour disturbed her more than she liked to admit, and she wondered if she should take him to the vet.
âWhite rat in pain, huh?' she said to him. âWhite rat afraid of sore head? Sore belly?'
Algernon paused in his restless scurrying and looked at her. âWhite rat go,' he said, his thought images dim and poorly formed. âWhite rat go under city.'
His pictures of the rats' underground system were whimsy, like a young child's drawing of a fairy-tale land. But it was the first time he had used that image, or even given any intimation that he knew such a place existed.
âBrown rats in tunnels,' said Tess. âBrown rats tough, fierce, biting white rat.'
âWhite rat go,' said Algernon stubbornly, his restlessness returning. âWhite rat go, white rat go, white rat go.' He began to chew with his yellow teeth at the bars of the cage.
Tess sighed. âTeeth worn down,' she said to him. âSunflower seeds won't open, white rat hungry.'
Algernon took no notice whatsoever. Tess returned to the window, but it was impossible for her to relax with the sound of Algernon chewing and scratching and rushing around his cage. Eventually she picked up a book and went downstairs, hoping that he would settle down in her absence. If he was still the same way tomorrow she could bring him to the vet.
Her parents were glad to see her coming down, and her father made room for her on the sofa beside him.
âEverything all right?' he said.
âJust Algernon. He's a bit restless. It's not like him.'
âI expect he needs a pal,' said her mother. âWhat about getting another one?'
âAs long as it's not female,' said her father. âThere's enough rats in the world as it is without breeding more of them.'
Tess laughed, reassured. The TV programme was humorous, the room was warm, and she had no premonition at all of the dramatic changes that were about to come into her life.
When the evening film was over, Tess brought an apple upstairs to share with Algernon as a bed-time treat. The rat however, had other things on his mind. The room was cold when Tess came into it, and the first thing she did was to go across and close the window. There was no sign of the phoenix beyond it, and she turned her attention to Algernon. He was upside down, hanging by his paws to the wire roof and gnawing on the metal clasp which kept the roof hatch secure. The water bowl had been knocked over again, and almost the entire contents of the cage had been hurled through the bars, littering up the room in a wide circle around the cage. Tess groaned and fought down a desire to punish the white rat. He was already disturbed enough, and scaring him further would not accomplish anything. Far better to try and find out what the problem was.
âApple, huh?' she said.
In reply, Algernon dropped from the top of the cage, twisting in mid-air so that he landed on his feet, then proceeded to perform the most extraordinary feat of rodent gymnastics, leaping up the sides of the cage, across the roof and down to the floor again in a dizzying sequence of somersaults.
âWhite rat go, white rat go, white rat go,' he repeated as he swung wildly around.
Tess began to realise that the situation was much more serious than she had thought. It was clear now that the problem wasn't just going to disappear and there was no sense in trying to ignore it. Where did Algernon want to go, and why? She turned his repetitive visual statement into a question and, in reply, Algernon sent a most extraordinary image into her mind.
It was a little like the visual name the city rats had given to Kevin, a gruesome mixture of rat and a rat's conception of a boy. But this new image was vaguer, and tied up with other images as well; wolves perhaps, and bats, all in darkness. Strangest thing of all, and the most disturbing thing to Tess's human mind, was that this being was calling. It was calling for all the rats in the city to come towards it, and the reason for Algernon's behaviour was suddenly crystal clear. For Tess could tell without any doubt that if she had been a rat at that moment, she would have had no resistance whatsoever to that call.
ESS SAT ON THE
windowsill and stared out into the darkness, longing for the phoenix to come. Behind her, Algernon was still raiding against the sides of his cage, his anxiety growing into a kind of dementia as he found that all his efforts were useless. Tess kept her mind firmly closed to his pathetic babbling. The weird communication that she had tuned into with her rat mind disturbed her a great deal and she knew that she was turning her back on the problem. But the lure of the phoenix was too strong.
Her parents' door eventually closed, and in a surprisingly short time she heard her father's regular snores coming through the wall. There was still no sign of the golden creature, but as she looked out into the darkness, Tess realised that this didn't matter. She could still re-live the experience on her own. The wonder of being a phoenix had nothing to do with companionship. It was beyond companionship; beyond all worldly attachments.
She was just on the point of deciding to Switch when something happened which made her change her mind. In a last, desperate attempt to break free, Algernon hurled himself at the door of the cage with such force that it sprang open and he found himself sliding over the edge of the chest of drawers and falling towards the floor. Tess caught sight of him as he fell, but before she could get to him he had landed, picked himself up, and was racing towards the corner of the room.
Tess followed, irritated by the delay but concerned as well. Despite Algernon's limitations as a companion, she was fond of him and she would have hated to see him coming to any harm.
There was no fireplace in Tess's room but there had been one, long ago, and the chimney-breast ran up one wall. Beside it was a redundant corner, about the size of a wardrobe, and Tess had helped her father to put doors across it when they first moved in. She kept her clothes there, hanging from an old broom handle, and beneath them her shoes and boots were arranged on the floor.
Algernon ran straight towards this cupboard as though he knew exactly where he was going. Tess and her father had never got around to fixing bolts on to the doors, and they always stood slightly open. Algernon nosed through the gap and disappeared among the footwear. Tess followed and pulled the doors wide open, just in time to see the rat's pink tail disappearing down a tiny gap between the floorboards and the wall of the chimney-breast. There was only one way to follow him. Switching had become so much a part of Tess's nature that she no longer had to think about it. She didn't even stand still but, in one fluid movement, changed into a brown rat and went slithering down the hole in hot pursuit.
Beneath the floor and behind the walls, a maze of old rat passage-ways ran through the house. Tess hadn't known they were there, but she might have guessed. All old houses are riddled with rat-runs, even if they aren't in current use.
Despite Tess's speed, Algernon had already disappeared behind the first of the joists which ran beneath the floorboards. But to her surprise, Tess realised that she didn't need to follow him. Her rat mind had picked up on the command from the mysterious stranger, and there was no doubt that she and Algernon were heading in the same direction.
She scuttled down through the walls of the house, between the courses of bricks, until she came into a long, rat-made conduit which connected with the drains. At the end of that, she caught a glimpse of Algernon's tail as he turned a bend in a pipe. She accelerated, and after a few more twists and turns she found that she was gaining on him. Before long she had caught up, but when she tried to communicate with him, he ignored her, his mind fixed exclusively on the unknown destination ahead.