Schrödinger’s Rat

Thursday, March 17

Sully Marlybone sighted down the barrel of his air rifle and held his breath in the failing light. His view commanded the length of the dock. Like a Russian sniper in the ruins of Stalingrad, he waited for movement, chewing his limp mustache.

There was the flick of a whisker beside a pile of garbage, a movement so insubstantial it could only be perceived subconsciously. He aimed slightly into the future, leading his invisible target. Like Schrödinger’s cat the rat existed, alive or dead, only after he fired. The wave function collapsed and left behind a dead rat, or not. Quantum rat hunting was inherently paradoxical.

Sully released his breath and set the gun aside. It was time for work. He would leave the rat in a state of superposition, both dead and alive, to hunt another day.

There was a flourishing population of rats scampering across the docks of Shantytown—Batavian rice rats, Norwegian wharf rats, roof rats—rats big enough to best a cat in a fair fight. The fights were rarely fair. The rats were organized. It wasn’t safe for an honest alley cat to be out alone at night.

He packed his evening meal—peanut butter and jelly, Cheetos, a flask of rum—in a Roy Rogers lunch pail he found at a garage sale. The homeowner hadn’t realized there was a sale. It was late at night, everyone was asleep, and Sully didn’t want to bother them. He left a dollar on the garage workbench.

He found a good deal of useful stuff at garage sales when he didn’t have to wait for a posting on Craigslist or a cardboard sign on a street corner or compete with professional rag pickers and neighborhood hoarders. The best deals were between 2 and 4 AM. He haggled with himself like a gypsy. Sometimes he got a great deal, sometimes he paid full price, but he was always scrupulous about paying for his purchases. Sully was no thief.

He carried his lunch pail and an anchor light down the docks, careful to stay near the center. Shantytown’s docks, precariously balanced on too few Styrofoam floats, wobbled at the edges. Residents regularly plucked drunken neighbors out of the cold water. This far north the water never warmed. Canada was visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The docks were mostly empty, people busy with their evening meal or getting stoned. The smell of garlic and Thai Stick mingled with the music of Ravi Shankar and Frank Zappa.

Shantytown, officially named Slee’s Bay Marina, didn’t officially exist. It had no postal address, no electricity, no fresh water, no sewage. It also had no rent. It was a loose aggregation of houseboats and aging wooden boats settling deeper in the water, slowly becoming an artificial reef. Its survival was largely a matter of convenience. It was less aggravation for the City of Port Angeles to ignore than police.

Sully worked as night watchman for the dead. It was a temporary gig until the next big thing. The work wasn’t demanding and didn’t require a background check.

Tse-whit-zen was a short walk from Shantytown but it was already getting dark. Sully set the anchor light on a picnic table. The parks department donated the picnic table for use by archaeologists and volunteers triaging artifacts dug from the sandy soil. The anchor light he found at a late-night garage sale. The glass, shaped in ridges like a Fresnel lens, amplified the light. The kerosene wick was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane.

Because of Tse-whit-zen’s reputation, there was rarely anything to watch at night. Vagrants and young lovers and even gothic types who favored graveyards avoided the place. Sometimes a drunk returning to Shantytown wandered from the path. For the most part, he sat alone and listened to the bullfrogs croak in the lagoon by the abandoned paper mill or sang old songs or walked in the darkness or dozed on the picnic table, earning minimum wage in his sleep.

He wasn’t especially troubled by the trove of bones buried beneath him. Sully wasn’t sensitive in any sense. The world was whatever he expected. On the rare occasions when it surprised him, he adapted his expectations.

He spent several hours singing every song he could remember by the Beach Boys, starting alphabetically from “Add Some Music to Your Day.” He never finished “Honky Tonk.” His head was nodding. He lay down to make it easier to remember the lyrics and promptly fell asleep.

Something woke him with a start. He had the reflexes of a feral cat or a homeless person sleeping rough. He went from a dream of someone seeding corpses in cities across the country to alert consciousness with nothing between. He sat crouched on the table, listening.

Ripples broke against the shore, frogs croaked on the lagoon, somewhere a door slammed. Normal night sounds. He let himself breathe again.

There was a dry rustling like a breeze stirring last year’s leaves but the night was dead calm. The frogs stopped croaking abruptly. Shadows seemed to crowd the darkness at the edge of the lantern light. Motion flitted at the edge of his vision, then vanished when he looked directly.

They moved like creatures painted on a Paleolithic cave wall, animated by flickering firelight—the shapes of wolves and coyotes, lumbering bears, elk and otter and the silky motion of cougars, and winged shapes, raven and eagle and something impossibly large with wings that spanned the sky. There were howls and barks and grunts and roars and the skirling cries of raptors. An impossible bestiary encircled him, creatures made of shadow and sound.

His heart raced. His breath whistled through clenched teeth. A dream. He was dreaming that he was awake. He could feel the salt air on his skin, see the rotating light on Ediz Hook, hear the blood beat in his ears. Asleep? Awake? What difference?

“Sully.” Something whispered his name. It sounded like a voice made of dust and cobwebs. “Sully.”

A deeper darkness seeped into the night like spilled ink. It blotted the shadow creatures and spread across the sand. It drained the light from whatever it touched. Sully suspected the stars themselves would drown in that darkness.

It was reaching for him. It knew his name.

There was a faint rhythm, almost inaudible, the rhythm of an irregular heartbeat staggering like a drunk between lamp posts. He felt an intense pain grip his chest. It gripped so tightly he couldn’t expand his lungs to breathe. The pain was crushing him.

The darkness lapped the edge of the light cast by the lantern. The flame in the lantern guttered. It couldn’t fail. It was supposed to stay lit in a hurricane. There wasn’t a breath of wind.

The flame couldn’t breathe in so much darkness.

He felt his consciousness flicker like the lantern’s flame and grow cold. He felt his memories unravel and dissipate in the spreading darkness.

He steadied himself against the picnic table, certain he was dying. He looked at his hand. The skin collapsed between the bones, brittle as old paper. Veins mapped the back of his hand like the braided strands of a river delta. His fingers were thin and hooked like talons. It was the body of a 70-year-old man, not his 35-year-old flesh and bone, but it burned. It burned with such brilliance he had to squint.

He held his hands outstretched. His body was radiant. He could probably be seen by ships at sea. He burned so brightly there were no shadows cast even beneath the picnic table, as if the light were liquid and flooding the surrounding space.

In the next moment air filled his lungs, the anchor light burned as before, the balance of shadow and light was restored, and the bull frogs croaked without concern. His hands looked like his own hands again. Nothing moved on the edge of his vision.

“What the hell?”

A flashback? He had never experienced something so vivid on any hallucinogenic. His heart was still racing and sweat pooled at the base of his spine.

First light was already beginning to color the sky above the Cascade Mountains to the east. His watch was almost over. For 30 minutes he sat on the picnic table with his head between his knees, breathing deeply, trying to steady himself and stop shaking.

He needed help understanding what he had seen, what he had felt. If anyone was likely to know, it was Blavatsky.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.


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