Of Hearts and Rats by Oliver Smith

    Edited by Jacqueline Dyre





    The Rat-Witch, Lorelei, stood by the shore.

    Her lover had gone to fight in the war:

    to fields where metal churned men into mud,

    where air was poison and rain was blood.

    Sweetly, she sang to the rats in their swarms.

    Beguiling, her song pulled them under the fjord:

    dragged down with the crabs and down with black weeds;

    dragged down to rot beneath rolling green sea.

    “Lorelei, my love,” the sly Rat-King called

    from a great ship anchored in the cold fjord.

    He wrapped himself up in flayed human skin:

    a picture of elegance, so handsome and grim.

    He twirled his fine whiskers and corrected

    his tie, tipped his top hat at an angle quite fine:

    “Lorelei, the Rat-Witch, you’ll soon be mine.”

    When her prince went away to fight in the war,

    he left Lorelei, the Rat-Witch, his long steel sword.

    “Lorelei, Lorelei,” the sly Rat-King called,

    so she cut him and sliced him, split him in four

    But a rat king is many rats together in one,

    so a dozen times ‘round her the rats did run,

    then they knotted their tails right back into one.


    She tried him with henbane poured into his tea.

    She waded in rat blood up to her knees.

    She tried with a gin trap’s razorblade snap,

    with cyanide, glue boards, bullets and shot.

    Still the King, he rose, escaped from the grave,

    all tangled with veins, nerves and hex chains,

    kidneys and sweetbreads, guts grown back again:


    “Lorelei, Lorelei, your prince is all gone,

    buried in bits in the mud of the Somme.

    Fall in my arms, and teach me your tricks:

    the magic, the spells and rat-witch’s rigs.”

    Rats flowed ‘round him like the spring tide:

    “Rat-Queen you’ll be, if you agree to be mine.”

    So, Lorelei, Lorelei like rock in grey stream,

    Hung her head low as she started to scheme.

    He called up a Rat-Priest to marry them then,

    oaken altar placed high in cathedral den.

    With golden tiara, his newfound bride

    stood close to her husband, biding her time.

    “Dear Rat-King, oh, Rat-King!” Lorelei hummed,

    “Let us polka and waltz ‘til daylight comes!”

    Lorelei fed him on barley beer and cheese:

    That night in his arms, so sweetly she keened;

    Sung a lullaby until he took his rest;

    He fell fast asleep upon her pale breast.

    Insensate and unconscious, he tossed and he heaved:

    a nightmarish visage, deep in his dreams.

    “Lorelei, Lorelei!” he gurgled a scream.

    She gathered the blankets to wrap him up tight:

    a serpent’s tooth needle shining steel-bright,

    thread from the shrouds she stole from the dead.

    The Rat-King cried out as he slumbered in bed.


    She stitched him into the fine silken sheets.

    As a man he cursed, and as a rat he shrieked.

    She carried him off towards the cold, cold sea.

    He struggled against her but could not get free!


    “Oh Rat-King, oh husband,” the Queen of Rats sang,

    “Lorelei is much more than magic and spells,

    more than howling and keening the Rat-Catcher’s song.

    She longs for her lover and has waited so long.”

    She sketched upon him a magical charm:

    “Some rats for the fishes, some rats for the worms.”

    Little grey vermin plunged into the waves,

    where hungry tides pulled them down, behest to their graves.

    The Rat King beneath her, still trapped in his sack,

    bubbled and struggled ‘til he broke into rats.

    He pleaded and begged with Lorelei, his wife.

    Then the King, he cursed her: “A rat-bitch for life!”

    Her foot pressed down hard, her weight on his crown:

    She held her king under until he was drowned.

    Now Lorelei, the Widow, waits on the shore,

    coiled rat tails for hair, out by the fjord.

    Her Prince never did return from the war.

    Lorelei, Lorelei, your love is no more!

    One voice it whispers, one voice it screams;

    The ghost of her prince, the ghost of her king;

    One under the soil, one under the sea.

    Lorelei, the Widow, weeps all alone,

    cries to the water, the sky and the bones.

    But Lorelei, the Rat-Witch, finds a new song.

    From the sea and sand, the notes have all come:

    here a fishbone, there a crab’s leg,

    a thing grown with coral, a fisherman’s head.

    Poor, mad Lorelei, brings flotsam to life;

    If no one will love her, she’ll be the sea’s wife!

    Lorelei, the Rat-Witch, with her needle and thread,

    stitches a new husband from bits of the dead.

    OLIVER SMITH is a writer and visual artist from Cheltenham, UK. He is inspired by the landscapes of Max Ernst, by frenzied rocks towering in the air above the silent swamp, by the strange poetry of machines, by something hidden in the nothing. His poetry has recently appeared in Dreams & Nightmares, Liminality, Riddled with Arrows, Songs of Eretz, Spectral Realms, and Strange Horizons. Oliver was awarded first place in the BSFS 2019 competition for his poem "Better Living through Witchcraft" and his poem "Lost Palace, Lighted Tracks" has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find Oliver’s website at https://oliversimonsmithwriter.wordpress.com/

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