This story is from the Winter 2003 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Hattie McRattie
Rat Illustrations by Sarah Cameron
The proud old apartment building stretched as tall as it could. Even though it was elegant with mirrored sides, being in the heart of the city it looked like a child standing on tippytoes trying to appear grownup in the midst of adults. It was home to the many wealthy people, but they lived on the upper floors. Johnny and his mama lived there also, but they shared three cozy rooms in a far corner of its basement. Johnny and his mama had lived in their “cozy corner,” as Johnny called it, for as long as he could remember. Mama worked as a housekeeper for the kind owner of the building. The deep green velvet carpets in the hallways on all the floors were always spotless because mama felt the whole building was her home and she wanted her home to be beautiful.
Mama thought her building was especially beautiful this time of year. Every floor had its own tall, green pine tree. It was mama’s job to see that every perfect pine tree was decorated. After Johnny would finish his homework, mama would take him with her to decorate “their” trees. Mama had a way of making each one look like it came right out of a department store window. Mama would use bright red ribbons to tie the gold ornaments, gold ribbons to tie the green ornaments, and green ribbon to tie the red ornaments. Each bow and tree was perfect. A large wicker basket brimming with scented pine cones was also placed on each floor just outside the elevator doors. Every time someone stepped out of the elevator, the perfumes of the season mixed with brilliant colors added to the spirit of joy for everyone who lived there.
In the basement there wasn’t room for a Christmas tree, but mama did her best to make their “cozy corner” festive. For mama and Johnny, this was more than Christmas. Johnny would be 8 years old on Christmas day. That is why mama named him John. Johnny was a Gracious Gift from God.
John made his entrance into mama’s life a few weeks earlier than he was supposed to, and he was very small when he was born. But, Johnny was God’s gracious gift, and he would grow strong. Mama just knew he would. And so John did.
Mama did her best to keep Johnny company in their home but there were times when the long hours of work kept her busy, and Johnny didn’t have many friends once he came home from school. The people who lived in the elegant building were very kind to Johnny and his mama, but after they went to their homes on the upper floors, they didn’t venture down to the basement and Johnny would never play in the quiet halls. This year Johnny had a very special Christmas wish, and since it was also his birthday, Santa couldn’t say “No.”
Mama knew about Johnny’s special wish, but their cozy corner just wouldn’t be big enough for a puppy. Well, maybe it would be for a puppy, but puppies grew into dogs and there was hardly enough room for the two of them. Mama felt very sad that she wouldn’t be able to give Johnny his special gift, after all, Johnny had been God’s special gift to mama 8 years ago. When the people on the upper floors asked Johnny what he wanted for this special season, Johnny just smiled.
Most of the time there wasn’t much noise; however, tonight was a little different. It was Christmas Eve and the upper floors had plenty of activity behind the individually decorated doors. After giving their private entrance some final touches, the family on the tenth floor, in apartment 1025, was making homemade decorations, and from the kitchen you could hear giggles of the happy children. You wouldn’t think Johnny and his mama would be able to hear the residents so far up, but 1025 was right next to an air vent; so were 925, 825, and the rest of the 25s all the way down.
In the kitchen of 1025, strewn across the oblong table, were layers of newspaper that had given up all hope of ever being read again. A cache of knowledge now firmly resolved not to let a splash of paint or a drop of glue permanently fasten a rainbow of glitter to an otherwise perfect glass table top. In the full accompaniment of decorating supplies were colorful pipe cleaners, pieces of styrofoam cut into holiday shapes, and yards of satin ribbons in every color you could find in the big department stores this time of the year. The room had been full of giggles and children clamoring to gain the attention of anyone who might give approval of their special holiday creation. The ornaments were left on the table to dry when the excitement of the children melted into yawns. Eyelids were now heavy with the promise of sleep and dreams of what Santa might leave under the tree if the decorations on the tree pleased him. It would be up to the grownups to make sure the brownies were heavier with chocolate and the milk was colder than anyone else’s in the building.
Safely hidden near a corner of the red brick fireplace was a small family of friendly rats. These weren’t the kind of rats you find on the street eating out of garbage cans. This family of rats had been residents of the elegant apartment building for many years. Grandma and Grandpa rat had been loving family pets of the residents of 1025 until the older children went off to college and the younger children just lost interest. When the older children left home, Grandma and Grandpa rat had run away. There was no longer anyone to take care of them and Grandma Rat was about to have children of her own. Grandpa Rat was very smart and had learned how to lock and unlock the cage.
During their earlier explorations, they had found a rat-sized opening under the cupboard near the refrigerator. The younger children were always careless, and delicious tidbits were always falling making wonderful meals for the small family of rats. The small rat family grew and continued to live under the kitchen cupboard of apartment 1025. As the ratlets grew older, many moved to other apartments to make nests of their own. Only Grandma and Grandpa Rat, mama and Daddy Rat, and three frisky 6-week-old boys were left in apartment 1025.
Children love Christmas Eve and 6-week-old ratlets are no exception. They just had to leave the safety of the cupboard to inspect the sparkly stuff on the big glass table. Being the wisest, Grandma Rat warned the youngest members of the rat family to be very careful around the ribbons, glitter, and glue—especially the glue. Being children, they did as all children do and ignored Grandma’s wise words and skipped and skittered all around the brightly colored decorations. This was their first Christmas and they were in a holiday mood.
Down in the basement Johnny and his mama added the finishing touches to their cozy corner. Mama sadly hung two stockings she had saved from the building’s supply of Christmas decorations. There was a spot right next to the air vent of the old coal burning furnace that kept the whole building warm. They didn’t have a fireplace or chimney for Santa to enter through, but Johnny knew Santa would find a way. Mama was going to wait for Johnny to fall asleep and then she would fill the stockings with sweet fruit, nuts, and caramels. Mama had managed to save enough money to buy a brightly colored plastic car. She had used some leftover paper and was planning to put it under the few small boughs of pine that fit neatly between their beds. Mama had worked so hard today, trying to make the old building look extra nice for Christmas eve, her eyelids grew heavy with sleep long before Johnny could even think of closing his. Johnny saw his mama sleeping so sweetly, he wasn’t going to awaken her. He took the package from her tired, folded hands and placed it under the fragrant pine. Then, quietly divided the sweet fruit, nuts, and caramels and put half in each stocking. Johnny took a piece of neatly folded paper out of his pocket and added it to his mother’s stocking. It was a picture of Johnny and his mama in their cozy corner. Johnny loved his mama and he loved their cozy corner. Everything was finished, but there was still so much room left in the stockings hanging near the furnace. Johnny thought to himself, “Good, there is still enough room for my puppy. With all my Christmas business taken care of, I’d better go to bed and let Santa finish his.” Johnny quietly slipped under his covers and drifted off to Christmas Dreamland where he found himself lying on his back enjoying lots of soft, wet puppy kisses.
All was quiet in the building. All except for those three troublesome ratlets still playing motocross on the big glass table in apartment 1025. By this time, the boys were using the table as a giant obstacle course. They would dodge the glue, weave in and around the bolts of colored ribbon, and vault over the open jars of glitter. They were playing so fast and furious on the last go around, they couldn’t stop. When all three tried to dodge the glue, it toppled over to spill the gooey contents onto the bits of colored ribbons. The three little boys were now covered with sticky glue and had enough different colored ribbons on them to make them look like furry Christmas packages. Adding insult to injury, their big back feet were sticking to the crumpling newspaper that was still hopelessly trying to protect the table. This time they couldn’t hurdle over the bottles of glitter and they each landed, south side first, in a bottle adding multi-colored glitter to their soft white fur. Having landed on their behinds, their long tails acted like springs, jet propelling them out of the jars and landing on the fluffy, colored pipe cleaners, then sending them down the air vent like cross-country skiers racing for the gold medal. As they skimmed the sides of that old air vent, they had ribbons hanging all over them so that even their eyes were covered. There was enough colored glitter to make them look like little peacocks being shot through a cannon. These three blind rats were skiing down, down, down. Down from the 10th floor to the basement. Luckily, there was something soft to break their fall.
Three very frightened little rats were exhausted from their ordeal, so they didn’t even try to move from the soft place that kept them from hitting the hard basement floor. They didn’t even care what it was; they were sleepy now and closed their eyes. They needed a short nap before they went to inspect their new territory. The glue, ribbons, glitter, and pipe cleaners didn’t keep them from going right to sleep. There would be plenty of time to explore later, besides they smelled nuts and sweet fruit, so they knew they wouldn’t have to look for breakfast.
Little rats are usually asleep during the day, so they didn’t even notice when the lights went on. Johnny had his alarm under his pillow so that it wouldn’t awaken mama. He couldn’t wait to see what kind of puppy Santa slipped into his stocking during the night. Johnny carefully carried his stocking to his bed and held it upside down so the puppy could slide out. “OOOOOOOOWEEEEEE,” squealed Johnny. Mama woke with a start. “Mama, look what Santa left in my stocking! Three baby rats!” Mama didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how they got there. Johnny didn’t have the puppy he wanted so badly, but he certainly wasn’t sad. “Rats?” mama said. “Yes!” squealed Johnny. “Mama, I wanted a dog, but Santa knew little rats would be better. Look how pretty he decorated them for me. Oh mama, they’re beautiful.” Mama agreed. “How did this happen?” she thought to herself. “They won’t get big like a dog and we won’t ever have to take them for a walk in the snow.” Mama wasn’t going to question the wisdom of the Giver of Christmas miracles. “Christmas is a time of miracles,” she said to her now 9-year-old Christmas miracle. “They are beautiful little boys, let’s clean them up.” Mama washed the glue and sparkle from the little brown and white coats, then carefully dried them in a warm fluffy towel. The little boys seemed happy to be goop-free and finished licking each other dry. When they were finished with each other, they decided Johnny needed a bath, too. They frolicked on Johnny’s bed washing and rearranging his hair with their little pink tongues. “Oh mama, I know what I am going to name them. I’ll call them John, Johnny, and Jonathon.” Mama knew why, three more Gracious Gifts from God.