They can’t kill us.
No. I won’t let them. Ever.
Since the day I came to this world, I opened my eyes and was greeted by the infinite void. No light ever hit my waiting irises. Only pitch black darkness. Nothing.
We live in the pipes. The filthy, almost uninhabitable pipes surrounding the city. Once you find yourself there scouting for a space to crawl and sleep in, you know the society has officially canceled you. It could barely fit us all but we had to make do with it. Most people think of us as thieves, or perhaps something so much worse judging from the disgusted looks on their faces when they come across us. As if we’ll steal the life out of them, like we’ll damage their genetic make up and end their entire bloodline just by breathing the same air as we do.
Welcome to the lowest of low classes, the almost non-existent cluster, the most-likely-to-get-killed assembly.
* * *
The Dark Ages.
Slowly it roots itself to the ground on our side of the continent, devouring anything that lay idle on its wake. Walking alongside it, in its hooded and haunting figure is one of the greatest terrors the world was yet to witness—The Black Death.
As this nightmare looms on our backs, it carries so much more than just a life-threatening warning. They blame all of these on us.
They say it’s in our skin, in our infested kind. They claim our blood is poison, the same way our bloodshot eyes might blind someone else had it been stared at for far too long. They let their fears put us to this seemingly endless misery and now we could never undo what they have assigned us to be before we were even born, could never change the way they see or look at us.
We are the curse.
We are the plague.
We are the disease.
* * *
My mother was very pregnant when she boarded a ship without any belongings nor any idea where she was heading to. She braved the dark and crowded cabins, scuttling to the corners when the tremendous waves rock the ship to almost toppling. It’s as if I could hear the raging waters of that terrifying night she usually tells me about, a tragic lullaby to the unborn safely nestled in a mother’s womb, putting me nowhere near sleep.
As she stepped on new land, she didn’t have time to take in the fresh air or rest her travel-worn body or even breathe for a moment. She had to think fast, had to run and hide as soon as she can. Because from where we’re from, we are never welcomed nor invited to be seen in plain eyesight. We are a condemnation to everyone.
Things are not so different here.
* * *
We work in the night. And by work I mean we keep ourselves alive by making the most out of the advantage the darkness gives us. It’s our best chance of not drawing much attention while we fight our way through streets we don’t belong in or cross paths with people who loathe us while at the same time suppressing fatigue and hunger. When you belong to the pipes, no one will ever help you, let alone show you mercy.
Since they already see us as thieves, and we pretty much have no other choice but to live up to it, we feed ourselves by stealing. Anything that we can scavenge, that can still be consumed. We search through garbage, dumpsters and random piles of rubbish. Nothing is ever enough when you barely even get the scraps.
But mostly, we complete our stash by breaking in houses.
* * *
I once saw one of my brothers come back down to our place in the pipes, holding up a half-eaten piece of meat, wounded and bloodied. His forehead revealed a portion of his soft flesh, blood trickled to the side of his face.
“Stones,” he laughed while wincing at the pain.
That’s how much they hate us. They could easily aim anything they are holding at us, hurling it with much gusto. It didn’t matter if we would die, as long as they drive us away and not a single drop of blood will touch their perfect, uninfected skins.
It’s not as if we dreamed to be like this. We never wanted to be a walking display of disgrace. We didn’t ask to be treated as contagious and incurable. Had I been given a chance to choose what to be before uttering my first cry to this dying world, I would’ve just opted to be a carefree wave in the ocean or an unsuspecting plant growing between the cracks on the pavement.
But instead, my family and I were given this.
As we settle ourselves in the cold and dripping threshold of the huge pipes we barely consider a home, with our tiny bodies neatly packed to keep each other warm, I knew it was my turn to set foot on what’s beyond this space we are all forced to fit in. What my two brothers try to bring back to a family of nine was and never will be enough.
I could almost smell the meat and the cheese and the bread I would bring back to my starving siblings.
I could imagine the anxious yet proud look on my mother’s face when I come back to the pipes victorious on my first quest.
But I could also see the danger that comes with all of it.
* * *
Bodies. Bodies. Bodies.
Fresh. Old. Decaying.
Falling. Lying. Buried.
I have never seen so much casualties in my life. I hug the walls as I venture through the night. I stare at the lifeless creatures surrounding my feet. Their skins have turned into sickly shades of green and purple, portions of their body are covered with swells the size of a chicken egg, blood and mucus ooze from their nostrils or the sides of their mouth. I think the city wouldn’t be able to hold the rising number of deaths. Could we really have caused all these?
I continue to move around like a phantom, a shadow without a source. I study the space between the curtains of the closed windows. The abscessed victims lay helplessly on their deathbeds, accepting their waiting end and looking mournfully to those they were leaving behind, or rather those leaving them behind. I see people packing hastily, everyone throwing in anything they can bring. Protective masks litter around the floor, candles close to running out.
They all wanted to leave.
I ignore my conscience and simply count this as an opportunity to do what I came to do. I slip through the door and forget whatever fear I had with me.
* * *
I let my glinting red eyes pierce the darkness, let the smell help me see in the dim hallways, let the vibrations of my surroundings move my feet little by little.
The people know that we’ve been getting resources from them. All types of guns adorn their high walls, perfectly aligned above their fireplace or their boudoirs. Bottles of strange liquid line up perfectly on the window sills or counter tops.
I’m going to die. Deep down I know that I’ll end up like the lifeless bodies outside. But I’m not going down without bringing something back to the pipes.
I can still hear the muffled footsteps from upstairs. The inhabitants of the manor still hasn’t gone to leave. The sickening air brought about by the lurking curse of The Black Death wafts towards me. I’m not affected at all, but I know it’s there. There’s no turning back.
I set foot in the kitchen. I scan the room and find the cabinets where they usually store their stash of food. My hopes shoot up, thinking this won’t be too hard after all. I reach for the opening.
I try the other compartments, this time with slight desperation. I feel my heart pound against my tiny chest, beating so hard it might just burst out of me. I need to take something back to the pipes. Anything. Anything at all.
But I was only faced with the empty spaces. The dust has settled where the stash didn’t take space. I was so close to getting my hands on it, so close to leading my family through one more night of suffering, so close to letting food touch our small stomachs.
I look around with much distraught, keeping my eyes open for the tiniest hint of crumbs on the floor or the smell of meat sticking on the surface of the polished table. My senses heightened as my sight hit the corner of the counter. There it was. A sign that I might just come home to the pipes with my hands full. A block of what seemed like cottage cheese lay on top of a wooden chip board, perhaps left after packing hurriedly.
Anything. Anything at all, I repeat to myself.
With all the barren storage I was met with, I looked at it like the light at the end of a dark tunnel. I toppled over a few cans, making them roll around clumsily and cascade on the expensive marble floor. I pause, listening through the silence, trying to feel any vibration on the walls surrounding me. No footsteps, no voices.
I turn to the window and see smoke rising in the distance.
I know don’t have much time left. My family could be running over the place looking for me. I can’t let the pipes burn them down. I have to leave now.
But I look back at the counter and felt like I had to do it. We moved from country to country, from one pipe to the next, for far too long. We barely eat and we’ve been treated like dirt all our life. I’m not leaving this place defeated.
I’m going to bring this back for all of us.
- • •
I finally hear signs of life from upstairs. Perhaps they’ve seen the fire engulfing village by village. They start to move and drag things around. It wouldn’t be long until they find me fixed to my spot, their guns readily aimed at me.
I place myself in front of my trophy. My sweet, sweet trophy.
I reach for it, my whole body rattling for my first ever catch and—
I heard the bones of my neck bend and crack bit by bit, my whole head pinned down with such speed I thought I hit the plank hard enough for my skull to empty itself of my brain. My vision went blurry and my oxygen is running out. You see, I know that this would happen. But I wasn’t prepared with how easy it was for my life to be snatched out of my hands. I envisioned a fight, not a trap.
I stare at what would have been a festive dinner for my family. I see that it wasn’t at all too appetizing. It was covered with mold and maggots, and the same strange liquid I saw lined up against the windowsill are dripping and pooling around it.
Footsteps approached me. They are here. With what I could make out of their faces, all there was was a sickening, disgusted expression. I could feel their eyes burn through me, like they have waited for this for a very long time. I scratch the wood with my sharp nails, wanting to break free but I feel life slowly slipping away from me. This is all we were and all we’ll ever be for them.
We are the curse.
We are the plague.
We are the disease.
They are humans, and we are just black rats.
* * *
Anything. Anything at all, I thought.
And then I closed my eyes. G