As a child I devoured all of Edgar Allen Poe's horror stories, but the one that left me with the strongest impression was the "Pit and the Pendulum." Not as much for the undulating scythe growing ever closer to the trapped narrator as for the rats he teases with leftover meat to entice them to crawl on his body and chew on the ropes that bind him. In the end, the rats free him, but personally, I probably would have preferred the scythe to the rat claws.
And after reading the torture scene in 1984 where Winston's face is attacked by a cage full of hungry rats, my disgust grew, cemented by the rat-infested Thai prison in Warren Fellows' The Damage Done.
But that was all fiction until I came to Chengdu.
My very first flat was a rundown hole in a Yulin neighborhood overrun, at the time, with barber shops. The first night, I sensed something strange in my room, and the next day, I said as much to my new flat mate. "Something is strange in my room."
"Strange? Like what?"
"I don't know. Like somebody died there?"
And then he confessed: Somebody had died—a rat, whose bony remains were still under the very bed I had slept on the night before and who wore on my conscience until the day I moved out.
Then there was the time a friend and I spent all night at a 'net café: After crawling outside into the infamous grey dawn, my friend suddenly started shaking his leg and complaining, "There's something in my pants!" He thought it was a bug, a cockroach, and he kept shaking his right leg. Neither of us were prepared to confront the rat that ran out of his pants. Could have been me, I thought, after witnessing an event that surely traumatized me for life.
Years passed, and I heard more rat stories from friends. I kept all the doors and windows closed at all times to make sure I was safe, and I was. When I moved into my current flat in Zongbei, my flatmate told me about a rat that ran across his chest one day while he was still in bed. I was on high alert, but for a year or so nothing suspicious passed.
The office, however, was a different story: At night, we started hearing the unmistakable scurrying of rat claws. And then we saw them, sliding the four meters down the phone cables to the first floor like miniature firefighters. Soon enough they lost all fear of us office props, scampering up behind our chairs, running races with each other in plain view, climbing up onto our desks to inspect. Glue traps caught a lot of hair and feces and finally a whole rat; after one was beaten to death and another trapped in a cage, peace returned to the office. A final office rat, a baby, was found in a nest its mother had built inside the stomach of a stuffed panda.
Last night around 5 a.m., a noise in the living room woke me up. Finding nothing, I went back to sleep. But an hour later there was another noise, this time in the bedroom.
They know us. They feel us. They sense us. They know how and where we'll move. They know where to hide and play psychological tricks with us. IIIIEEEEE. I saw it on top of the curtains!
Trying to hunt a rat isn't easy—it's never where you think it is. It's behind that bag. Throw a lotion bottle. Bang! Nothing. Knock on several cupboards with a long-handled umbrella. Nothing. Check the living room. Nothing, except for some tiny rat poop next to the window. Panic. I need a stick. I get a broom. What else? A hammer! A hammer? Not long enough! Kitchen cleaner to spray in its face. I used to be a pacifist in my mid-teens. I can't go back to the bedroom; it might be hanging out two meters above me and pee on my face just because it can. I crouch on the floor. I puff off half a box of cigarettes. I listen. Eventually, I fall asleep on the sofa.
Next morning my phone keeps ringing but I'm as good as dead. I Google "kill rat" and learn that rats can get through holes as small as a quarter.
I have to get rid of that intruder. The bedroom ... it must be there. I move some bags and hit some plastic. I lift the mattress, just to be sure it's not there. IIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEE! It's there! Panic. Hammer. Broom. Umbrella. Cleaning spray. Hiding under the mattress is against the rules. But that rat didn't seem to care. It didn't seem to mind me at all, slowly shifting to take cover under another part of the mattress.
Open the balcony door. The plan is to lift up the mattress and give the rat the chance to run out. The mattress is heavy and clumsy and just bends up at the corners. The second time I peer under the rat gets up on its hind legs like an eager-to-please puppy, peering curiously at me.
The fourth time the rat finally saunters out, like a man of honor, amidst blood-curdling screams, to the balcony, practically puffing a cigar and clicking its heels together in mid-air on its way.
You, dear reader, might be laughing from your perch in what you believe to be a rat-free zone in, say, one of the fancy Western restaurants in town, but did I forget to mention that time when ... .
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 27 ("faces"). Illustration by Judy Seto.