Rat King—S. M. Hallow

In the morning your mother will say we were a fever dream.

We promise you, Clara, we are very real. 

Our seven heads. Our seven tails, tied together in a prince’s playtime knot. Our seven bodies, parrying as one against your cherished nutcracker, a rhythmic undulation of haggard gray fur. 

Watch carefully. Watch your nutcracker call his legion of toy soldiers to destroy us. Watch us dodge the cannonballs, the bayonet blows. Watch the riposte—have you ever seen such a gentlemanly duel to the death? 

We are gentlemanly, Clara. Gruesome to behold, we understand, but far more honorable than your Drosselmeyer’s treasure. Did you know he did this to us? That he condemned us to this snarl of flesh that made us not our own?

Eyes open, Clara. No turning away now. Watch

Watch and remember the moment we trip your nutcracker. The moment he breaks to his knees. Even the moment you pull off your slipper, scream NO, and throw it at us. Remember all of it, so tomorrow, on your crystallized Christmas morning, when you find your gallant soldier broken on the floor beside a single severed whisker, you will know the truth of what happened. No doubt your mother will blame your irksome brother. Flushed with the aftermath of fever, you will cradle his pieces in your palms, and try to tell her it was us. 

Too much Christmas Eve excitement, she will scold, then blame your imagination.

But you watched us plunge our rapier through the red coat painted onto your nutcracker’s chest, and you heard the wood of him splinter apart. And each night, as you pray to your God, you will hear us, too, scrabbling within the walls as we establish our kingdom of vermin, and you will know better than to dismiss us as imagination when all along you will keep our whisker tucked beneath your pillow, as a favor, as a gift, as proof. 

As—perhaps—an invitation.

Pushcart Prize nominee S. M. Hallow writes speculative fiction of all flavors, from horror to fantasy to romance. Hallow’s stories, poems, and visual art can be found in Baffling Magazine, CatsCast, Final Girl Bulletin Board, The Lovers Literary Journal, Prismatica Magazine, and Seize the Press, among others. To learn more about this part-time fairytale witch, full-time vampire, follow Hallow on Twitter @smhallow.

photo by Darya Tryfanava (via unsplash)