An old black Dodge Model DD made its slow way down Parsonage Street. The car's driver, E. Franklin Bierce, city health inspection officer, was searching for an address -- 625 Parsonage Street.
He had driven through Arkham's old Polish district twice now, hunting for the address, and was growing uncomfortable and impatient. The neighborhood he was in -- French Hill -- had never been particularly well favored. There was little in the way of money or prosperity. Streets were narrow, often no more than crazily winding alleys: maddening exercises in the arbitrary. The houses -- and there were many, clustered close -- he disliked even more. It was an architectural jumble of soot-stained 19th Century brownstones and rotting Colonial monstrosities from an even earlier time.
He disliked the old buildings. The steep moss-crusted roofs; the smudged bulls-eye windows; the jungle-tangle of blackened chimney pots and cornices and ancient iron weather vanes -- all of it, rotted, disagreeable. Why, one could almost see the crumbling piles exhaling moldy vapors of decay! Shameful! Historical preservation was one thing … but wholesale stagnation, well, that was quite another matter.
Even the churches had seen better days. Bierce noted with sour irony that secondhand salvation stood on every corner: St. Michael's; the First Baptist Church of Arkham; St. Stanislaus on Walnut Street; deserted and most ominous of all, Bayfriar's Church, atop French Hill. Old Bayfriar's, with its boarded windows, its wheeling flocks of black croaking birds.
Damned thing should have been torn down years ago, he thought to himself.
He decided to park the Dodge on Parsonage and search for 625 on foot.
It was late April, cool and rain-drenched, with the promise of still more rain to come. Green buds were just beginning to appear on black tree limbs. Clouds were moving swiftly through the sky. Fedora on head, trench coat buttoned closely, briefcase in one hand and umbrella in the other, Bierce looked and felt out of his element. Not that he was afraid -- he was, after all, a tall man, wide through the shoulders. A full beard framed a face intelligent and knowing, bespectacled and very stern. He walked quickly. He did not dawdle, took little note of the few residents and passersby. They were, after all, Poles and Irish. He was a man of position, a Mason and government official, of old Arkham blood. They were immigrants. His day would end with a glass of scotch, a good cigar and The Wall Street Journal, theirs with sweat and shouts and the stink of boiled cabbage.
The Poles and Irish, however, did take note of him. A gnarled stump of an old woman sweeping her porch stoop watched curiously as he passed -- likewise, a noisy knot of running children. Bierce ignored them.
On his right he passed an empty, barren lot, a conspicuous space among the crowded homes. Well, it wasn't completely empty. Last summer's weeds lay dead in the yard. There were a few bricks and stones left in the grass. Looking closely, one could just discern the foundations of the old Colonial structure the locals had dubbed a "witch-house," which had been leveled nearly fifteen years ago, following a March gale.
Well, he had found the place; this was the source of the complaints. In this case it was "vermin," as defined by town zoning ordinances set up in 1915. Rats, if one was exacting, as was Bierce. It hardly surprised him, given the general state of the neighborhood.
With a stick he prodded through the matted undergrowth and scattered debris. A brick kicked aside here, a rotting board overturned there, he searched for signs of rats. He glanced into the tiny backyards of other houses, the narrow alleys with their crates and barrels and corners and winding stairways. Nothing. He discovered a few droppings, an empty nest or two within several stacks of old newspapers, but little else.
Actually, Bierce wasn't looking for rats so much as a rat. Since January there had been reports and sightings of a particularly large brown sewer rat, possibly of the Sumatran variety, in the neighborhood, usually in or near the empty lot.
By all accounts the rat was a thoroughly nasty, slippery fellow. He was never seen by day, though there was frequent evidence of his night-work: rifled garbage and tins licked clean, mice and smaller rats found dead and decapitated on doorsteps. Once he had badly bitten a dog and killed a cat -- a former resident of 625 Parsonage.
The rat was clever, too. He had a liking for cellars, attics, crawl spaces, and drainpipes. Though he was quite plump, he could squeeze through the smallest of holes. On more than one occasion he had squirmed his way up a watercloset, to the disgust and horror of onlookers.
What struck Bierce as odd was the fear surrounding this particular rat, the atavistic dread it invoked among the Poles and Irish of French Hill. That it was big and cunning, he could accept. Rats, after all, were reasonably smart animals, able to learn from experiment and experience. But that these immigrants should invest this animal, Rattus rattus, with real intelligence and supernatural qualities was Old World superstition at its worst.
Yet it was all there: the rat was said to scuttle across rooftops and scratch at windows and doors in the dead of night. Heaven help those who left either open. They would find the thing nuzzling them under their bed-sheets. Neither poison nor traps were of any use -- he was too clever for that nonsense. He spoke, but very rarely; his voice was said to be a loathsome, half-strangled titter, made nearly incomprehensible by an antique accent. (Bierce thought this a marvelous detail: it wasn't enough that the rat spoke, but that his diction be that of a New England Yankee, too.)
Of course the rat possessed hand-like paws, a long naked tail and a cruelly caricatured, vaguely human cast to his bearded face. Witch's familiar, devil's pet, yes, all the old familiar elements were here. It might as well have been Salem, 1692.
As if to reinforce this hypothesis, Bierce noted that windows facing the lot were shuttered and blinded. Some of the residents had even gone to the trouble of nailing religious icons to their shutters. On three sides -- crosses, wooden crucifixes, tiny Virgin Mary's, medallions winking with muted light in the dim afternoon. Witch-House ... devil-rat ... was there anything these people didn't believe? Honestly, what need did anyone have for ghosts and goblins in the wake of World War I and the Depression?
The little horror even had a few nicknames. Most popular of these was Brown Jenkin, though the Irish referred to him as Long Tail, Mad Jack and sometimes Tommy Toothsome -- a reference to his long teeth, Bierce was told.
His inspection having revealed little, Bierce went to the house next door -- 625 Parsonage. The wind was high in the trees, a thunderous rush of sound. A cloud of fat, speckled birds burst forth from a hedge, startling him.
625 Parsonage was an ancient Colonial structure, well over a hundred years old. Bierce noted the high narrow lattice windows, the steep roof of wormy gray-green shingles, the encroaching moss and withered ivy. The door, of heavy oak planks, showed signs of rot.
Why doesn't anyone take care of things anymore?
He checked a scrap of paper kept in his pocket. Elena Bronski, 625 Parsonage, it read. Old Widow Bronski.
Inwardly, he sighed. He was hardly anxious to meet Widow Bronski, that opinionated, stubborn old East European battleaxe. She was what he considered the worst sort of Old World immigrant -- one with notions of aristocracy. Who really cared? Polish knights, dukes of the Grand Duchy, generals and colonels: dusty old icons of a bygone era. Fitting that she should live in a house as antiquated as her ideas.
She was forever the gadfly, petitioning City Hall with letters in crabbed longhand, a joke among city officials. Over the years, there had been countless letters. Arkham did not need a reservoir. Prohibition should never have been repealed. There were potholes on Parsonage. Roosevelt's New Deal was "acronymic Bolshevism." Well-bred women did not wear pants. The Wojekos' compost heap drew vermin. Weird Tales and other such penny dreadfuls corrupted young minds. Why had City Hall ceased to answer her letters?
He knocked twice and then once again.
A lock clicked, and the door opened, slightly. A seamed, worn face appeared in the crack, a face like fruit gone soft with age. But the eyes were dark and alert behind thick gold-wired spectacles, and the thin-lipped mouth was tight and set.
"Mrs. Bronski?" Bierce asked. "I'm Franklin Bierce, from the city health department. The board sent me here to discuss your complaints concerning rats sighted in the area."
Widow Bronski smoothed back her hair, which was tied in a bun of almost painful severity. The woman's expression clouded, but briefly, and she said, "Oh, yes. But it is a rat, not rats, Mr. Bierce. Please come in."
She stepped aside, leaning on a cane.
Inside the house was somewhat better preserved, but small, with small rooms, close and confined, paneled in dark wood. Underfoot the floor was lumpy and warped. The curtains were drawn. Elaborate webs of white lace were draped over every horizontal surface, it seemed. Dried flowers and wax fruit and candles and tiny daguerreotypes of the Old Country had likewise propagated in every corner. On a drop leaf table sat an old phonograph. Widow Bronski bid him sit in an overstuffed couch the shade of dark wine. She sat in an antique high-backed chair. The air was scented faintly of powder, perfume and mold rot.
He glanced at the clock on the far wall: twelve minutes after four. He would be late for dinner, more than likely.
Widow Bronski folded her hands and waited for Bierce to speak. He removed his hat but not his coat. There was somewhat of a chill in the old house, despite the glowing embers in the fireplace.
"Would you like some tea, Mr. Bierce? I brewed some before you arrived."
"Uh, yes. Tea would be nice, thank you."
Widow Bronski left him alone in the room. He noticed it then; all about him, the old Colonial house made sly, stealthy noises, creaks and tiny squeals and bumps. Black branches, swaying in the April wind, tapped and scratched at a window. He thought them rather like skeletal fingers, wondered why he would think such a thing.
Widow Bronski returned with two steaming china cups on a small silver platter. The tea was good, strong. Only delicate sipping disturbed the momentary thoughtful silence. Then the old woman asked, "On your way here to my house, Mr. Bierce, did you happen to notice the empty lot next door? A place that the neighbors draw their shutters upon and hang crosses in their windows?"
"Yes. I passed it on my way over here. The empty lot you mentioned in your last complaint. Quite an eyesore, if you ask me. I'd keep my shades drawn, too, if I lived next door."
Widow Bronski continued, ignoring his little joke. "You know what once stood there, yes?"
Bierce nodded, though he could hardly see how this related to the matter concerned. He decided he would humor her for the moment, and then get down to business.
"From what I've been told, an old Colonial house stood there for many years. It was a boarding house for a time, until a windstorm tore the roof off, fourteen, fifteen years ago. Shame. A waste of historical architecture, if you ask me."
Not very different from what we have here ...
"And?" Mrs. Bronski asked knowingly.
"And what? Oh … and according to some, it was a 'witch-house' of some sort. There were murders there, I'm not sure how many, and some nonsense about sacrifices around Halloween. I really don't know very much about it, but I personally believe most of it's bull ... stuff."
He flushed momentarily at this near slip of the tongue.
"Mr. Bierce," the old woman said, "my husband, God rest his soul, was one of the men who helped tear down that 'witch-house' in 1931. He was a good man, like you in some ways. He did not believe in certain things because they upset his little world. He was not a religious man. He laughed at the thought of witches and devils, and told me again and again, 'Elena, this is not the Old Country! We left all that far behind. In America there is no use for such ridiculous things. Do you want people to say, "there goes Elena, the stupid Pole who believes in spirits and spooks"?'
"There was a murder at the Witch-House. A nice young man died there years ago. I do not remember his name. He was a student at the University. Not long afterward the house was condemned, and then came the gale that collapsed the roof. Workers were sent in to clear out the debris. They found terrible things. The bones of children, hidden behind a partition in the attic. A long knife. Worst of all, the skeleton of a large deformed rat."
"Brown Jenkin, right?" Bierce asked knowingly. He had little patience with ghosts stories and old legends. "Long Tail? Or is it Mad Jack? Certainly well known for a rodent, wouldn't you agree?"
"The skeleton," Widow Bronski continued, "was profoundly misshapen. The skull and hands were like those of a man, though the teeth and claws were those of a rat. It caused a great stir among all gathered -- the workers, the police, and the men from the University."
"That night the workers lit candles at St. Stanislaus. The police, I am sure, filled out their reports. The University men took the skeleton with them to study. No doubt it sits in a closet now, gathering dust. And my husband was never quite so sure of himself again. Would you like more tea?"
"Mrs. Bronski," Bierce said, "I don't mean to be rude ... but what you've just said makes no sense. This Brown Jenkin you're talking about, according to you, has been dead for at least five, six years. And even if it did survive somehow, I don't believe most rats live that long in the wild."
"He's much older than that, Mr. Bierce. And he's not a rat."
Bierce sighed. "All right. Then what we have here is a rat that is not a rat, which is dead but not dead. What, is it a ghost, then?"
"I don't know."
"Mrs. Bronski … let's examine the facts. Here in Arkham, however long ago, an old woman goes to the gallows on suspicion of witchcraft. It was common enough then. All one had to do was point a finger and accuse a neighbor, should their crops die or their cow go lame. Guilty until proven innocent, so to speak. More than likely, the old woman had a pet for company -- a cat, which in legend later became a rat, then a rat with distinctly manlike features. Why? It makes for a good tale. Since it was her pet, her familiar, it shared the same fate -- the gallows, stoning, burned at the stake.
"And so the story is passed down, generation to generation. Facts are forgotten, are distorted. The old woman was a witch. The cat was a nasty little devil-rat. Gradually, though, the story loses hold of its audience. The house stands empty for years, decades. But! But let something occur anywhere near it -- a suicide or a murder, for example -- and all the awful old stories spring forth again. 'It was the ghost of the old witch that murdered that nice young man!' That sort of thing."
"Are you saying that I'm crazy?"
"No. Absolutely not. What I am saying is that imagination has taken hold. Because this rat -- and it is a rat -- is relatively clever and bears a passing resemblance to this 'Brown Jenkin,' he suddenly becomes 'Brown Jenkin.' He refuses poisoned bait. Not that unusual. Rats aren't stupid. Soon, people claim to see him undoing latches and opening windows. Before long, he's on rooftops singing Gregorian chants to the moon.
"Do you see my point? It isn't a ghost. It isn't a witch's familiar. It's a large, brown, common rat."
"I see," Widow Bronski replied stiffly. "Would you care for more tea, Mr. Bierce?"
"Uh, yes. Yes I would."
She went to the kitchen, leaving Bierce with his thoughts. He glanced again at the clock, again reflected upon dinner. Widow Bronski returned with a steaming copper teapot, poured more tea.
"Mrs. Bronski," he said, "I've examined the empty lot as you requested, likewise the alleys and backyards nearby. I found a rat's nest or two in some shredded newspaper, nothing else."
"That is because he drove off the other rats sometime ago. He's not a social creature."
"Yes, well, there's no evidence of him, either. Am I to assume he's clever enough to hide traces of his whereabouts, too?"
"Assume what you wish, Mr. Bierce."
Annoyed, Bierce opened his briefcase. He made a business of sorting through papers, straightening them, poring over them.
"All right, let's get on with things ... in your complaint, you claim he killed your pet cat ... Piludski? Am I pronouncing that correctly? Piludski."
For the first time the old woman's reserve began to break, slightly.
"What happened, exactly?"
Widow Bronski sighed and looked away, past Bierce.
"It was ... March. A very cold, blustery, gray day, toward dusk, I believe. The sun was setting through the trees. I was in the kitchen. From outside, behind the house, came a horrible, screeching racket. I thought it was Piludski, fighting with the Woljekos' cat. But when I went outside with a broom, I ... I saw that thing and Piludski rolling on the ground, snarling and fighting. I couldn't tell which was which ... so I hit them both with the broom and yelled, 'Stop! Stop it!' Finally, they broke apart. They were both panting. Gray and brown tufts of hair were everywhere. Then I remembered that the Woljekos' cat was black, not brown ...
"It was Brown Jenkin. His face was scratched and bloodied … but I knew it was him. He has a nasty, sneering bearded little face, like that of a very cruel man, and tiny clawed hands. He saw me, and his lips pulled back in a horrible, trembling bloody grin, his sides heaving. Then he lunged at Piludski again, and Piludski snarled and swatted at him, but he broke away and ran down an alley. I tried to follow … but he was too fast and I am too old. And besides, it was getting dark, and he is strongest in the dark and lonely places."
"Hmmm," Bierce replied, stroking his beard. "Then what?"
Widow Bronski sighed again. With a delicate spoon she stirred her tea. She was close to crying, and Bierce dreaded that the tears might start at any moment. A gust struck the windows a blow that made them shudder and the wind screamed high and thin. The skeletal branches swayed, tapping, scratching at the lattice-window, and Bierce thought of claws. The clock uttered a single solemn brass note: four-thirty. Speckles of rain appeared on the leaden glass.
"Then what, Mrs. Bronski?"
"I brought Piludski inside. He was hurt, and tufts of his fur had been pulled out in several places, and a small chunk had been taken out of his ear ... but otherwise, he wasn't badly injured. I tried to clean his wounds, but he wouldn't let me touch them, he was that upset and angry. Eventually I did manage to take him to the veterinarian's, where he was given shots for rabies and distemper. He recovered and was doing well, for a time ... and then he simply disappeared one day."
The old woman sobbed and produced a handkerchief, dabbing at her eyes. "I don't know. Two weeks later, I suppose, it was still March. No, wait ... I do remember the date ... it was the 21st of March. The vernal equinox, if I am correct."
"And you think this … 'Brown Jenkin' is somehow responsible for the disappearance of your cat?"
Widow Bronski fixed him with a bleary, red-eyed stare and stated flatly: "I know he is responsible, Mr. Bierce. He is very evil. I can't imagine what he's done with my Piludski ..."
"But how do you know that this rat, thing, whatever, took your cat away? What if Piludski ran away? Animals will flee things that disturb or frighten them, or when the competition in a given area becomes too fierce."
She appeared to take some comfort in this suggestion.
"Perhaps. I'd like to think that, I assure you. But I'm sure that little bastard had something to do with it."
Bierce flinched in surprise. To hear the old woman swear was hardly short of astonishing. An awkward silence fell, as did more rain, harder now, running down the windows in rivulets. The room became even more dim and dismal. In the fireplace, the embers winked, red and malevolent. Widow Bronski stared at them and muttered something Bierce did not quite catch.
"The embers. They are like his eyes. I saw them once, gleaming from a tiny window in the garage attic, when I was outside calling for Piludski. God ... they were evil little points of light. Cold and unblinking. They saw me and went out, like snuffed candles. I was so frightened, I went inside and locked all the doors and windows.
"He lives there now. I know. I hear him at night sometimes, moving about, scratching, rustling. God knows what he does up there. Sometimes there are comings and goings. Twice now there have been flashes of light, like lightning, and a smell, both burned and sweet, like ozone. I've found dead birds and mice in the garage itself, arranged in what I know are patterns.
"Once, I thought I heard him talking in his awful, halting, tiny voice; it made my skin crawl to hear it. But that is not all -- there were pauses in his speech, and what sounded like an answering voice, as if he were talking to someone, or something. An old woman, I think."
"Mrs. Bronski ... please ... rats don't talk."
"And I told you he is not a rat!"
The sharp, strident note in the old woman's voice irritated Bierce even further. Once again, he began straightening his paperwork, and put it back into his briefcase.
"Then what is it, exactly?"
"I don't know ..."
"So what would you like me to do, then?"
"Lay down traps? Poison? Holy water? I don't know. He is up to something terrible. But he must be stopped, somehow. He must be killed."
Bierce looked to the clock again for salvation. It was a quarter to five. Outside, the rain had abated somewhat. It was time to be done with this business. His colleagues had been right; old Mrs. Bronski had been getting progressively crazier since her husband Stanislaus passed away three years ago.
"Wait ... where are you going?" Mrs. Bronski asked.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Bronski," Bierce replied, as he rose and began buttoning his coat. "But it's a quarter to five, and I have pressing matters back at my office. Paperwork, files, that sort of thing. What I'll do is recommend that an exterminator be sent here by the morrow to lay some traps and poison in your garage. That should take care of the problem.
"Afterward, I'd suggest you go through the garage attic and remove anything that rats could use as nesting material: stacks of old newspapers and magazines, fabric, boxes, mattresses, old clothes, get rid of it. Seal up any rat-holes you see; this discourages any 'new visitors,' so to speak. And if you have any trouble in the future with rats --"
"But he is not --"
"Fine, then, Mrs. Bronski. Then I suggest you get a priest. But I really must leave, if you'll pardon me."
Widow Bronski opened her mouth to say something, but only nodded and sighed. She gave him his hat and he went to the door, reminded her again that an exterminator would be by tomorrow. He promised. And he was sure her cat would return sooner or later.
"I would like to believe that, Mr. Bierce."
Outside, the rain had ceased. Heavy clouds scudded across the sky and every branch dripped wet and black. Bierce looked about him, at the terribly old houses with their tiny windows and steep roofs, at the dark trees and mossy stone walls and, for a moment, witches and little devil-rats seemed not entirely impossible. He dismissed the idea. Nonsense. Bullshit, as he had almost said in Widow Bronski's parlor. Had he been a less polite man, he would have suggested she visit the Arkham Sanitarium. The quirky old woman was descending into madness. But then, that was an immigrant for you. Provide them with electricity, modern transportation, and gas heating, and they still thought and behaved like medieval peasants, seeing the designs of angels and devils in everything.
Out of curiosity, he rounded the corner of her house. There, set discreetly back from the street, half-lost behind an enormously overgrown oak, was the mentioned garage. It was an ugly plywood thing, cheap and paint peeling, its outlines blurred by dead creepers. The door was open and inside sat a Model A Ford, which probably hadn't moved since the day Stanislaus Bronski died. The roof rose to a peak, and above the door was a small circular window, divided into four panes: the attic.
There was a flash of something -- small, red eyes. They disappeared instantly and the window was dark again.
A chill rippled through Bierce, skating down his spine.
Brown Jenkin!, he thought.
No ... that was foolishness. It was a rat, that was all. It was no devil. It was no ghost. It was no witch's familiar back from the dead and full of vengeance. It was a rat, nothing more, and he would prove this once and for all to Widow Bronski.
Slowly, he walked toward the garage, never looking away from the attic window, which remained empty. The eyes did not reappear. There was no smell of ozone, or brimstone, for that matter -- just old wood and dust. Inside the garage, he set his briefcase down, and cast about for a weapon of some sort. The clutter of the garage was astonishing. Small wonder that the king of rats should make it his throne room! Cobwebs, jars and cans on shelves, stacks of old newspapers, discarded furniture ... from a row of tools hanging on the far wall he selected a short, rusty spade. One good blow, he thought, and Mister Rat meets his maker.
Bierce gave the ceiling an experimental thump with the spade. There was scrabbling, and then silence. He smiled to himself.
A short flight of stairs led to the attic. They squealed thinly underfoot. Dusty leaden light poured in through a round, webbed window. The ceiling leaked in several places and water dripped to the uneven floor. He strained his eyes to see into the gloom: old birdcage, cabinet, picture frames, brass lamp, the forgotten odds and ends of a household.
Grimacing at the stink of mothballs, he took a step forward and nearly crushed underfoot the body of a dead decapitated sparrow.
Further ahead were several other dead birds, and dead mice. Two blue jays, two more sparrows, a grackle, a finch, and three field mice. Their bodies, Bierce noted with growing dread, were arranged in a circular orbit of sorts, so that each corpse occupied a staggered point, facing inward. Three birds lay on their backs, wings spread. Three lay like the mice, on their bellies. It was a pattern, intelligently arranged, yes. No, wait, there was something wrong, even worse. Their eyes -- they were bloody and ruined. They had been gouged out -- or eaten -- by something, or someone.
It's her, Bierce thought. Widow Bronski's doing this. My God, she's not just crazy, she's insane, she's psychotic, she's certifiable ...
There were brownish marks in the dust, deliberately drawn, and linked ominously to the pattern of dead birds and mice. There was an orbit, and what appeared to be angles, and angles within angles, cubes and prisms ... designs and symbols he could not guess at ... and names, too, in a spidery script. He crouched to read it, nearly toppled, and so lay the spade aside. He read the names silently, lips moving:
VARDAR ... GANZIR ... IA ... IA ... YOG-SOTHOTH ...
The light seemed to be dimming. In the corners of the attic, where his eyes strained to see but could not, he thought he sensed movement.
BUGG-SHOGGOG ... AZAZU ... 'UMR AT-TAWIL ...
There it was again, a sudden stealthy scrabbling movement, a shadow. In that moment, he understood -- of course! Widow Bronski, far from being the rat's victim, was its keeper! This was her work, the patterns in the dust, the dead bodies, the substance disturbingly like blood. Hell, she probably even thought she was the legendary witch who had terrorized Arkham over two hundred years ago ...
An empty can clattered and rolled, and Bierce jerked to his feet. There, on top of the dusty old cabinet, a sleek, low, hunched shape, crouched. It was the rat! And Christ, he was big. Its tail lashed about in a fit of ill temper, its whiskers twitched.
Slowly, ever so carefully, Bierce reached for the spade's handle. One blow, was all that was needed -- one good solid blow to the skull. Fading light glinted upon the thing's eyes, and they briefly smoldered reddish-orange, fearful and pitiless. He thought he could hear it growling at him, a faint throaty intonation, but full of threat.
"Just stay right there ..."
The spade was missing.
Shock sent his heart to pounding like a trip-hammer. No, that couldn't be -- he had set it beside him! He rose, and someone was there who had not been there before.
At first he was sure it was Widow Bronski, that she had followed him quietly up the garage attic. But Widow Bronski, while old, was not ancient, as was this gnarled, bent and haggard thing, whose grayish flesh hung upon her bones insubstantial as webbing. She did not wear shapeless rags and hood of moth-eaten brown. Nor was Widow Bronski's face so sardonically hateful, lined as old linen and knotted as the bole of a tree, long of nose, hideous as that of a bat. Her cataract-clouded eyes went wide, and she grinned, revealing blackened gums and teeth worn to yellow-brown nubs.
In her spidery hands she clutched the spade.
"Fancy a row with my Brown Jenkin, do ye, then?" she asked.
She swung the spade with strength belied by her shriveled size, and the flat side connected with Bierce's temple, knocking off his hat and his spectacles askew. Blood flew in a brilliant spray through the dusty air. Bierce fell to his knees, stunned, ears ringing. The blow seemed to explode inside his skull. He tried to crawl away. Dim, shadowy movements hounded his progress. The witch cackled, dark crumbling rotten laughter.
He nearly reached the stairs, but before him squatted the rat, Brown Jenkin. Mrs. Bronski had been right … he really wasn't a rat at all. Yes, he did walk on four feet, and yes, he did have fur and a long pinkish tail, but there the similarities began to fade. His thinly bearded face was an imperfect and yet cruelly accurate mockery of a madman -- one who might bay at the moon or eat corpses. The whiskers twitched, the eyes burned blackly. The paws, Bierce saw, were very much like small human hands, knotted by corruption and murder.
"Just a rat," Bierce muttered.
Brown Jenkin hissed, a sound like the sulphurous scuff of a struck match. Gathering himself and baring long yellow fangs, he launched himself at Franklin Bierce's face.
Piludski, as Bierce said he would, did come back -- the following day, as it happened. He was, after all, a born fighter, an old campaigner and the namesake of General Piludski, who had defeated the Red Army before Warsaw in 1920.
He had fought the rat-thing no less than three times. But it had eventually proven too determined an adversary for him. So, at the dark of the moon, he had surrendered his old home and stolen away, to the fantastic and indescribable hiding places where cats retreat when forced by great and terrible events. Here he had bided his time patiently, like a general in exile.
Before long, he sensed the passing of the storm. His home was his, once again. The rat-thing had returned to whatever bleak universe claimed it, to its furtive scurrying and scratching and scrabbling at the corners of the waking world.
And so Piludski went forth, and entered first the garage, his oldest haunt, his summer home and winter retreat. Carefully he sniffed at everything: every box, every can, every cabinet, every corner. There was no sign of the rat-thing or any of its terrible allies. Cautiously he went upstairs, to the attic, on swift noiseless paws.
Again, he sniffed fastidiously, missing no detail, and again, nothing of the rat-thing was revealed. The stink of its fur, of its carrion breath, was gone. Gone were the dead birds and mice, gone too were the blasphemous names and fantastic markings upon the floor. All that remained were several curious brownish angles and intersecting marks drawn on the opposite wall, symbols that meant absolutely nothing to the cat.
Piludski, immensely pleased, rubbed up against a stool leg. His world was his again. He noticed something then, upon the floor.
His curiosity peaked, he sniffed at the discarded object, a pair of expensive wire-framed spectacles.
Created: January 31, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004