The young man in the old clothes was called to rhyme the rats to death. When there were too many rats in the basement to accept with a smile, folks in the neighborhood called him. He’d amble up in his worn elbows and stained pork pie hat. We kids dropped our games and play to follow him. He’d nod with a smile but never spoke to us. I guess he was taking his rat killing seriously. The mothers and wives would be at the kitchen doors to give him a quick word and let him know what’s what. He would get the lay of the land, and be paid in advance: a ten-dollar bill and a pint of poor whiskey, sliding both into his back pocket.
We watched from a distance. We were never allowed to stand near. We would usually be leaning over the stoop of the next door. He sat on the step and whistled old melodies and for a while it was just him and the light tune. But then a rat would present itself, and then another, until there was a small audience of twitching noses and long tails before him. All of them staring at him with intent pencil lead eyes. Finally, it was time for the maestro to lean over towards the rats and begin to recite. Soft and so quiet that none of us heard the poem he was reciting. We heard nothing of the words, which is probably just as well, because soon the rats began to spasm and die.
When all were on the ground he would at last stand up, kick each of his riveted audience to make sure they were dead and then he left slow and whistling. It was up to the housewife to pick up the dead rats. I don’t know why, but that is how it always happened on our street. None of us knew what the poem was. Was it so awful it made the body seize or was it so beautiful that there was no reason to live after hearing it? And did it only work on rodents? If we heard it, would we be dead too? Or just slightly nauseated? Or would it give us no other choice but to be rat killers and poets as well?
Dave Macpherson is a writer from Worcester, MA. His work has appeared in The Worcester Reivew, 13 Human Souls, LitBits, The Flash Flood and Tiny Lights.