I woke up earlier than usual to go through my gear, making sure to set up my camera with a fresh roll of film. I decided to keep myself as streamlined as possible, taking only the most necessary of equipment, namely my camera and myself. I didn’t want to be burdened in case I had to make a quicker than usual getaway.
Butterflies danced in my stomach making eating a chore. Everything that went down only ended up like it wanted to come up again. I managed to keep what little food I ate inside where it belonged.
I felt I was still in a dream, a wonderful dream of talking animals and new friends. I realized it wasn’t when Eddie asked me if everything was okay. Yep, my dog still talked. So far everything was exactly as I remembered it.
Calling to mind the promise I made to Justin the night before, I questioned my decision. I had enough photos to hand in to my editor to get paid. I could just pack up and leave. Maybe the poachers wouldn’t come this close to the valley. If they did, so what? These were rats we were talking about. Even if they killed a few, who cares?
I couldn’t help but care. These were no ordinary rats. They talked and acted like humans, building an entire sanctuary in Thorn Valley without anyone knowing. Except I knew and that made it my responsibility to protect it.
But why? I could pretend none of this happened. I looked at Eddie as I thought. If he continued to speak after we left, I would never hear the end of it, of how I abandoned the rats to their doom after they asked me to help them. That was all it boiled down to. Justin had asked me to get involved. I didn’t have to say yes but I did. I agreed to do what they asked of me which amounted to what I was doing already, taking pictures.
This would be the only way to prove there were illegal activities being executed in the reserve. How safe would I be? The rats told me that the two men always went out to gather their kills the same time every day for at least an hour. That would give me more than enough time to take my photos and run.
What happened that the rat team that got ambushed? Did they overestimate the time? Did the poachers come back earlier than expected? Did they think that just because they were rats they wouldn’t get noticed? Either way, I knew as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t take the rats’ word on the timing. I had to be extremely conscious to how long I was there, paying attention to any evidence that the men were returning to camp.
The more I mentally planned this, the sicker to the stomach I got. I should have said no and taken my chances.
Justin had implied that there was reason I was here and was able to understand them. Did I believe there was such a thing? Seemingly random occurrences coming together for a specific final goal?
Here I was on an assignment I hated and I end up meeting the most unusual people I will ever meet. Even My pet started talking, don’t forget that. Then boom! The rats needed someone to document poachers. What better person than a photographer?
If this all worked out, the photos would create a story bigger than the whole reserve. Was that the final goal all these events were leading up to? Or was the final goal something that would happen sooner? Or later even? I shook my head. All these questions were driving me crazy. I had enough to do.
I felt like Gulliver sitting in the grass, surrounded by all the rats too curious to work while this plan was taking shape. I had unfolded my map of the Valley and surrounding area. Justin, with the help of another rat named Arthur, were marking out the path I was going to take.
The poachers’ camp was still relatively away from the valley but still close enough to cause a lot of concern. I decided it would be best to leave Eddie behind, as his presence would most certainly tip off mine.
Nancy, despite some protest, volunteered to go with me. She knew the area best, also feeling she owed it to me. Justin organized another group to follow us closely but under no circumstances were they supposed to get involved. He did not want a repeat performance of the other day’s tragedy. The less I had to worry about on this trek the better.
I saw my companion walk through the crowd towards me. The bandage was gone, replaced by a slight limp. She was dressed in a new tunic of dark green with pale brown sleeves, a dagger strapped to her belt.
“So you are Nancy,” I announced, as she stood proud before me. The rat bowed, a totally unnecessary gesture.
“I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for me,” she replied. “If it wasn’t for you, I would have never seen my family and friends again. I am eternally in your debt.”
I felt my face flush. All this gratitude was becoming unbearably embarrassing. “If you ask me, it’s Eddie that deserves your gratefulness more. Thank you anyway.” With that, I held out my hand. The rat scampered up my arm.
Instead of my coat I wore a black hooded sweater. It was not as warm, but less noisy to wear. Thankfully it wasn’t that cold to begin with. As I adjusted my collar she settled in the hood. Checking my camera one last time, I wrapped the strap around my wrist.
Taking a deep breath I stood, now even more a giant among rats. My lips tightened into an uneasy smile. It was time.
“For the Valley,” I said under my breath as I tried to convince myself I was doing the right thing.
We hiked without speaking for about a half-hour, which was as well since I was too nervous to hold a conversation. Nancy was half lying on my shoulder, half in the hood, aware of everything around us. Her keen sense of smell told her that we were close.
“Be cautious around here,” I heard the rat whisper in my ear. “Their camp is nearby.”
Those words sent a chill down my spine. “How close are we?” I whispered back.
“Just over this next hill up ahead.”
I walked a little bit more, picking up a burnt smell in the air. As she said, up ahead I began to see a small campground. I crouched in the bushes in case our timing was off.
I crawled as close to the ground as possible, inching my way towards the tents. Nancy jumped down with a small crunching noise under her feet. I held my breath, hoping it would not be the sound that attracted attention. All was still with no noise from the site. It was empty. I crawled forward a bit further then paused, peeking through the foliage.
There were only two tents from what I could see. A small put-out campfire turned to be the source of the burning smell I caught a whiff of before. A loud rustling noise came from the opposite direction. I gasped, pressing my form flat on the ground, hearing my speeding heartbeat. I was facing Nancy whose size gave her an advantage.
She was standing upright peeking through the brush, her whiskers vibrating as she sniffed the air, her ears up to pick out the slightest sound. I watched her but dared not move an inch. The best I did was mouth, “Do you see anything?” hoping she understood me.
“It’s all clear,” she answered, looking at me. “It’s only rabbits foraging. I don’t smell humans around, other than you of course.”
“How can you be sure,” I whispered.
“Oh trust me. Humans have a very distinct smell, especially these ones.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted.
Deciding to err on the side of caution, I raised myself, resisting the urge to brush off the leaves sticking to my clothes. I saw Nancy scamper up ahead into the campsite, trusting her instincts more than I did mine. I scanned the tents, open sleeping bags, and the smoke rising in a faint wisp. A cold feeling came over me however it had nothing to do with the weather.
I took the first still. I found it to be a lot more difficult than I thought. My hands were shaking which startled me. I had never had that happen before. I entered the camp taking in as much with my eyes as I did with the camera. The area was thick with an unusual stillness, or maybe it was my imagination.
Cigarette butts and wrappers littered the place. Sloppy they were, although at first inspection this didn’t seem any different from any other campsite I’ve seen.
Feeling courageous, I opened the flap to one of the tents. I pinched my nose as I was greeted with the distinct ‘I’ve been living in the woods too long’ smell. I lowered myself to get in, making a note that the tent was larger than mine. A pile of dirty clothes sat in one corner, the obvious source of the smell.
Scattered paper was strewn throughout, which I found strange since these were not food wrappers but document paper. Trying not to disturb anything, I poked at them, attempting to read with what little light was filtering through the tent fabric.
National Institute of Mental Health, the letterhead stated. N.I.M.H.? I cocked my head in confusion. Why would poachers get letters from a government health facility? I scanned the page. It only spoke about how expenses occurred on the ‘proposed project’ would be accounted for in their budget and reimbursed accordingly. Signed a ‘Dr. Shultz’.
There was no other name save for that one which frustrated me. I wanted to at least have the name of the people who owned this camp along with the pictures. Expenses? Proposed project? All the letters were on N.I.M.H. letterheads.
I was about to pick them up when Nancy let out a small cry. It didn’t alarm me as much as it made me peek out.
I saw Nancy frozen, staring into a turn I could not see.
“Did you find anything?” I asked as I walked over.
A long rope was tied between two trees several feet apart, nails pounded into the bark serving as impromptu hooks for several rusted traps. The wind blew the dangling chains, their slight ringing giving me goose bumps. Knives with blades longer than should exist outside a kitchen were stabbed into the tree, their blades encrusted with what I thought was rust. Then I moved my eyes over.
Hanging along on the rope were pelts of all shapes and sizes, most from foxes and bobcats. I could only guess how long it took to amass this collection. A quick count yielded at least thirty. Some of them still had the heads attached, their lifeless gazes staring upside-down back at us as they screamed with silent agape jaws.
Underneath the hanging pelts were still fresh bodies piled in a heap. They were sliced open from throat to tail yet still unskinned. The grass was mottled with dark smears as large black-green flies swarmed around.
The whole setup stood like an obscene shrine. Tears welled up in my eyes making aiming the lens difficult. I felt Nancy clutch my jeans leg. I glanced down and saw her leaning against me, facing the other way.
“This wasn’t here the last time we searched this place,” Her voice trailed. She was obviously as upset as I was.
I was pressing the button on the shutter without even knowing how many pictures I had taken. The whole grotesque sight distracted me as I tried to smother the outrage I felt inside. The smell of blood and rot attacked my senses, the horrific, constant buzzing sound of flies delighting at their feast filling my ears. I couldn’t control myself anymore.
I clutched my mouth as a rancid mixture of food and bile burst through, sending my sinuses aflame as it exited however it could. The camera dropped from my hands as I jumped away, violently vomiting up what little food I had in my stomach. Nancy ran over to me yet kept her distance. Now she had a distinct smell to remember me by.
In my panic attack, I did not realize how much noise I was making with all my coughing and retching.
As I lay on my hands and knees, tears rolling down my face and saliva dripping from my mouth, Nancy started to twitch, looking nervously back and forth from me to the campsite. A wild, panicked look formed in her eyes.
I slowed my breathing enough to realize that there were sounds behind us. This time these were not foraging rabbits. My head snapped up as I heard the clanging of metal and two male voices talking. One voice got quiet then spoke with cautious anger.
They heard me!
My brain went completely blank as pure instinct took control of my body. I burst through the brush like a wild animal, not feeling the branches tear at my face and hands. My legs just kept running with no idea as to where I was heading. The only thing that mattered was that I got as far away as I could from that place. My lungs began to ache, my breathing became more labored but I couldn’t stop running.
The ground disappeared from beneath my feet. I fell forward, hitting the ground with enough force to knock the wind out of me. I went tumbling, every twig, root, branch and rock taking their turn stabbing into me. Then everything stopped.
I don’t know how long I was out. My eyelids fought the attempt but I was able to open my eyes. I felt something wet strike my face repeatedly, a cold nose pushing itself against my forehead.
“Eddie?” I replied with a weak, cracked voice. The dog let out a worried whine.
Several voices muttered all at once around me. I jerked up thinking of the two men, but my body won that contest. I fell back down, aching all over.
“It’s all right,” Eddie answered with extreme concern. “You’re safe. We’re all here.”
I lifted myself onto my elbows, seeing the rats all around me. I couldn’t tell how far I had run. I deducted it must have been far enough that everyone felt safe to be by my side. Fresh tears ran down my face.
“No, it’s not all right,” I answered with despair in my voice. “I dropped my camera. I dropped my camera! How could I be so stupid? The piece of crap has a strap on it for a reason!”
I covered my eyes trying to keep the sunlight from aggravating the headache that was coming on with a vengeance.
Justin ran up, his brow furrowing with guilt. “This is all my fault,” he said. “I should never had asked you to do this. Leave while you still can. We’ll take care of the poachers on our own. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m not ending this here. I can’t.” I rolled up, sitting on my knees. “These guys, you can’t believe how many animals they have taken. They’re only going to take more. They’re destroying everything. They have to be exposed and to do that I need to get my camera back.”
I tried standing up but felt dizzy. I stumbled, falling onto my rear. A collective gasp surrounded me.
“I’ll set up a team to get your camera back for you,” Justin said. Almost immediately rats began volunteering including Nancy.
“No!” I snapped. “If they found my camera they’ll be expecting a return visit this soon. Also, we’re not talking about some cheap Japanese automatic. This is a heavy, professional camera. You wouldn’t be able to take it without attracting attention. And even if you were, you’ll damage it dragging it through this terrain.”
Everyone stood silent as we gathered our thoughts. Eddie pushed me in the back, startling me. “This place is only safe for now. We must return to the Valley before it gets dark.” His fatherly tone made me not question his advice.
With great, slow effort, I forced myself to my feet, fighting my wobbly knees. Eddie knelt down and the group of rats climbed aboard, clutching his shaggy fur to stay on. Our walk was quiet the whole trip to the Valley, silent screaming still ringing in my ears.
I was a wreck for the rest of the day. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying. If I wasn’t crying I was cleaning and bandaging up all the numerous cuts and scrapes I acquired in my panicked sprint. Eddie kept vigil at the base of the tent, peeking in on several occasions to check up on me.
I couldn’t get the image of the hanging and tossed carcasses out of my head. How could someone take a beautiful living, breathing animal, crush its leg in a trap, then go about ending its life like it was nothing? How much of your soul did you have to abandon in order to do that without flinching? No matter how much I tried to analyze it, I couldn’t get it to make sense. All that carnage so some person could feel fashionable.
There was a rustling at the tent flap. Nancy walked in backwards, dragging a plastic food container with a sandwich and wild berries piled up on the side. The other end entered with Justin pushing, helping Nancy. I couldn’t help but smile at the whole sight.
“I can’t remember when was the last time someone made me a meal,” I said, wiping my tear-streaked, puffy face. I tried composing myself for the two guests.
“We were concerned,” Justin answered. “It was Nancy’s idea to do this.”
“It was Justin who recommended berries from storage,” the female rat answered. “They’re very sweet and should perk you right up.”
I tried one, surprised at its freshness and robust taste. “Wow, you’re right! These are pretty good. I’m so used to the freeze-out-the-taste variety from the supermarkets.” I took another one. “You didn’t have to raid your own stash for me. I have my own supplies and I’m leaving tomorrow for the most part.”
“It was the only thing we could think of to thank you,” Justin replied. “Especially with the amount of food you gave us.”
“Enough with the thanks already!” I let out a loud laugh. “I’m thanked! I’m thanked! Though it feels like I really haven’t done much other than lose my camera.” I looked away, sad. “They’re still out there. I still need to get my camera back.”
I glanced over at Justin who sat down next to the plastic container. “Help yourself, if you like,” I said as I picked up half the sandwich, biting in.
We sat in silence eating our food. I caught a twinkling out of the corner of my eye, realizing it was the amulet around Justin’s neck. Staring at the gold ringlet with the red shimmering stone made me wonder what a rat would be doing with such an odd artifact.
“So Justin,” I said as I swallowed a piece. “What is that thing around your neck anyway?”
Justin looked up then glanced down quickly as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. “Oh, this,” he said as he picked up the stone, staring at it with reverence. “It’s a gift from a friend.” His voice trailed, the amulet bringing back fond yet distant memories.
“It’s obviously very special to you,” I answered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without it.”
“I wear it so much I almost forget I’m wearing it,” the rat answered. “I only take it off when I bathe.”
Nancy suddenly got excited about the conversation. “It’s more than special,” she piped. “The Stone holds deep magic. I’ve heard stories as to what it can do.”
“Magic?” I skeptically replied. “Like hocus-pocus magic?
“Not exactly,” Justin answered sheepishly. “I’ve known two individuals who could call the power from the Stone. Only one of them was actually able to use it.”
I took another bite from my sandwich. “What’s the difference if they both could call the magic?” I felt stupid saying the word.
Justin searched his thoughts in an attempt to explain as best he could. “Our leader, uhm… former leader had a skill that no other had been able to recreate. He was able to tap into a natural force, I guess you’d call it magic, that he had great control over. He owned the Stone before giving it to Mrs. Brisby, a mouse. It turned out she could tap into the Stone’s power yet even she couldn’t explain it.”
“So what happened to Mrs. Brisby?” I asked. “If she could tap the Stone, then why do you have it?”
“She didn’t need it,” Justin answered. “She gave it to me because she felt we would benefit from its power. I’ve yet to figure out how it works.”
“You can feel it,” Nancy answered. “Sometimes I get a tingling feeling all over if I stand too close to the Stone.”
“I think you’re imagining things,” Justin answered modestly. “I don’t feel anything special from it, although it has been glowing a little bit more than usual.”
I gave out a chuckle. “I think that tingling feeling has more to do with the person wearing it than the Stone itself.” I glanced over at Nancy who was blushing while Justin had an embarrassed look on his face.
“I… I wouldn’t think that either…” Justin stuttered under his breath. Nancy gave out a small giggle.
Ah yes, Anna Carmichael – rodent matchmaker.
Eddie stuck his head in wondering what all the laughing was about.
“Come on in,” I invited. “We were just discussing the finer points of magic, of all kinds.”
Eddie panted happily as he bounded through the door, taking a place between the two rats. I broke a piece of my sandwich to give it to him so he didn’t feel left out.
I don’t know much about magic but I did know that holding a conversation with two rats and a dog was an experience I wouldn’t trade in for the world. We talked and laughed until it was time for all of us to part ways for the night.
As Justin and Nancy left, I felt a little sad that the next day would be my last. After I got my camera back, or so I hoped, I would have to pack up, leaving behind the most unique friends anyone could ask for. I also knew that once I got back to civilization, I would never see them again. But then that was the reason they had chosen to live in Thorn Valley to begin with.
I thought back about something Justin had mentioned, that there was one person who would care if something happened to them but not in the way I would think. I wondered what meant. Then again his explanation about the Stone didn’t answer anything either. If only I had the time to really get to know him and the rats history. I mean, magic can’t possibly be the end all explanation for all of this, could it?
I laughed at the thought. Why was it that I was willing to accept talking animals but not magic stones? I shrugged off the concept as I settled in for the night.