by Brandon Eckerd
Deep within the undergrowth, beneath the starry sky and full moon, a small white rat shifts through the forest floor. The heat of the tropical sun still radiated off the damp leaves. His whiskers twitch as they brush against fallen logs and mossy stones. The thin-tailed rat lifts his head, catching the scent of his destination on the wind. He sidles up next to a fallen log as he runs, feeling the safety of cover at his side. The sudden crack of a breaking branch behind him causes him to freeze. For over a tense minute he waits, pressed against the log. There is no more signs of movement. He sniffs the air again, mouth watering at the scent of fallen fruit.
The faint glow of dawn pierces the forest as he arrived at the base of a great tree. Scattered across the ground are plump, green fruit. He grabs on and stuffs it in his cheeks. Another white rat appears next to him, grabbing another fruit. The rat has a notched ear and thick tail. He knows this rat from ten burrows past his own under the fallen palm tree. Red eyes stare back into red. They brush whiskers and touch noses. Feelings pass between them: familiarity, comfort, concern and hope. Together they gather the fruit, stuffing what they can in their cheeks and carrying the rest between their teeth. The thin-tailed rat follows behind the notched-eared rat as they scurry back into the undergrowth.
They track the rat scent across the leaves, logs and stones. They stay close to each other and even closer to cover. It is safer this way. From under a log appears another white rat. She stares at them with her only eye and reveals a mouth full of crickets. She falls in line behind the thin-tailed rat. Sunlight is now pouring through gaps in the canopy, heating the forest floor. They squint their red eyes as they pass through the rays.
The notched-eared rat stops and sniffs the air. The other two rats mimic his action. Under the pervasive smell of wet mold and rotting wood is another scent. The scent grows stronger. It is the scent of fear and dismay. The rats panic. Falling out of line, they dash towards the nearest cover. There is a burrow beneath a large rock in a patch of sunlight a couple meters away. The thin-tailed rat sees it and dashes for it. The notched-eared rat drops the fruit in his teeth and bites the thin-tailed rat, dragging him back and jumping over him. The thin-tailed rat squeals in pain on the ground while the one-eyed rat sniffs him with concern.
The notched-eared rat reaches the stone and dives for the burrow. From the burrow there is a flash of pink and brown. The rat attempts to turn around but stumbles on the wet leaves. He feels warmth and pain. Rows of hooked teeth dig past his fur and skin and into his bones. He lets out a desperate squeak, but the other two rats are long gone. Thick brown coils wrap around him as he is dragged beneath the stone. He lets out a gasp of breath but finds himself unable to inhale. Struggling only hastens the process as the scaled behemoth crushes his vessels. Blood is dammed in his veins. His eyes bulge, his whiskers twitch and his heart stops.
The thin-tailed and one-eyed rats scurry past the constricting python. Dashing across the leaf litter, they find a communal burrow. They scamper inside, pulse racing and whiskers twitching. They have survived yet another night.