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  • Writer's pictureGastropoda

I, a Piper by Landon Wittmer

An indefinite number of rats populate the world. All estimates fall in the billions, but this does not include the number of mice, squirrels, or other members of the order Rodentia. Because of their nocturnal nature, accurately quantifying rats in swathes of wilderness is difficult. In smaller, contained areas too, rats elude statistics; on parsing a rat’s nest in a hole or batch of weeds, legion nests exist around it. Tunnels comprise these hovels, and in the mineshaft of a rat’s den, dozens of pups rest and grow.

The two most common rats are the black rat and brown rat, Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus, respectively. They have dined in Grecian halls, crossed oceans in the hulls of slave ships, refuged in the ruins of Pompeii. They have circumscribed you and every home you have entered and every street you will cross.

B. F. Skinner is credited for pioneering the use of rats in modern psychology. He designed the “Skinner box,” a small room in which a rat may tug a pulley for food, tap a button for water, or lay alone, staring blankly at the wall.

The Aleutian Islands between the coasts of Alaska and Russia shelter a chain of volcanic land dubbed the Rat Islands. Introduced via shipwreck in 1780, brown rats dominated the ecosystem of the Rat Islands for the next two hundred years. In 2009, the Alaskan government sponsored the mass extermination of brown rats from their conquered resort, which proved a surprising success. The Aleutian Islands have since lived relatively free of their plague, though this has caused an unexpected increase in the mortality rate of local birds.

Rats are myopic creatures with increased senses of smell and sound.

The iceberg theory of personality states that a man in crisis is presentable because of his ego, while the id, the unpresentable, the obtuse, haunts the neurons, the blood-brain barrier.

When water is denied, rats outlive camels.

Rats are social creatures.

The Black Death is credited to the rat, as are the Hantavirus, Salmonella, Rat Bite Fever, and Tularemia. The year Covid-19 appeared was also the Chinese year of the rat.

In Skinner’s wake, the memory capacity of rats has been tested with small, sanitized mazes.

This capacity, we learn, is exceedingly high.

In 2013, five hundred thousand American families owned one or more rats. This statistic does not account for rodents between the lines. Rats remember the hours they are fed just as you routinely lie awake and remember. Rats remember your voice and your schedule, and you will mourn your rat when it dies. You will cry because the rat has lived with you, treading on a large wheel; you will cry because its eyes will be black—its eyes were always black—and painted with poison; you will cry because your rat has harbored and buried itself in the seams of your hippocampus, and you will not know how to proceed.


Landon is an emerging writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose compact nonfiction centers on whatever animal and/or emotion he's been thinking about recently. He's ecstatic to find that sometimes these subjects fill the center of a Venn diagram in his writing. His writing can be found in Mag 20/20 and forthcoming in Midsummer Magazine and The Periwinkle Pelican.

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