Hàorán was born on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year of the golden dragon. Hàorán's mother said that made him special meant he had great things waiting for him. But Hàorán never felt special; he wasn't at the top of his class, far from it. He did not have the good connection with his ancestors that his birth should have guaranteed. Moreover, he wasn't particularly concerned about any of this. He didn't spend his free time trying to work his way up the educational ladder, and he didn't understand why he was supposed to care about his ancestors in the first place; they were of no importance to his life. In fact, it seemed that the only thing Hàorán cared about were the animals. During the free months, when most children his age could be found studying or helping out around the home, Hàorán could be found sheltered away under the crooked old cherry tree in the backyard, poking at the dirt watching the little ants run around and the worms writhe their way from one point to the next. He had fashioned makeshift terrariums and feeders to draw more animals to their backyard. It wasn't until the year of his eighth birthday that this hobby began to worry his mother, and had she maybe been able to see through that thick, glassy haze of motherly love, she may have been able to change the outcome.
It all began in December, about five months past Hàorán's seventh birthday and the festival of ghosts. The first frost of the year had swept through the countryside, coating everything in a crackling haze that had all but dissipated by 1:00, at which time Hàorán returned to school from naptime soaking wet. He drifted into the classroom as if in a trance, a trail of muddy water forming in his wake. His sixth-period teacher screamed when she saw the thin rivulets of blood streaking down his forehead and running from beneath his eyes like tears of the damned. His hands gripping white on a small wad of paper, he stood in the doorway swaying, a faraway look on his face and a small smile. It took a whole three hours for the teachers to uncover what had happened, and it was not until they managed to wrest the wad of paper from the vice grip of his tiny fingers that the story truly began to unfold.
As Hàorán had seen it, he had been on his way home from school for a nap, kicking a rock before him on the path when from the corner of his eye, he spotted a golden glint from the stream that ran alongside the road. Anything that shone that brightly was far more interesting to any child than a rock barely good for kicking. So it was with a childlike sense of urgency that he went tripping down the bank. In the water there, trapped in a small eddy against a rock, was a small golden lotus lantern, leftover from the festival of ghosts all those months ago. It didn't even occur to Hàorán how strange this was; he was captivated by the golden glow emanating from the lantern. Transfixed, Hàorán reached out kneeling on the banks, but the lantern seemed to almost dance out of his reach, swirling just beyond the grasp of his fingertips, the burbling of the stream sounding a cruel bubbling sort of laughter. Feeling around, Hàorán alighted upon a small branch and stretched out once again. But once again, the lantern evaded him, laughing around the end of the branch as if taunting him. Turning to give up, deciding that the lantern, pretty as it was, was not worth the effort, but something akin to a whisper pulled him back to that lantern, the light of the late afternoon sun winking off the surface. With no thought to the consequences, Hàorán took a giant step and felt his foot settle on the slick mossy surface of the rock. With a leap that would frighten even the most even-tempered of mothers, Hàorán found himself swaying but settled neatly on the rock. Reaching down, he grasped the lantern in one grubby little hand. Holding it up triumphantly, he seemed not to notice the gust of wind that flurried towards his feet which moved to balance him. The stick that he had been using before trailed in the water below, entranced by the lantern Hàorán did not notice the sharp tug on the branch until he felt himself begin to fall forward. His sneakers struggled to no avail to find purchase on the slick surface. Hàorán felt himself falling down down towards the bed of the stream. He squeezed his eyes shut and clutched his prize to his chest. He felt himself tumble farther and farther, farther than he had ever fallen before, farther even than the time he fell from the top of the cherry tree while trying to snap a particularly fine branch for the tail of a rat. Perhaps if Hàorán had been a bit smarter, he would have found this strange, but as is, the only thought that came to his mind was one of terrible scorching warmth and a harsh high pitched sound squeaking away at the back of his mind.
Hàorán awoke an hour or so later, lying on the bank, soaked to the bone and with a sizable lump forming on his temple where he had struck the bed of the stream on the way down. Gone was that terrible sound and the burning heat, but clutched in his hands was the now blackened lotus lantern. He stumbled up the bank and back towards the school, a voice in the back of his mind telling him that nap time was long since over. That's how he was when he staggered through the door of the classroom, his eyes stained red with blood and that infernal smile that never quite seemed to go away despite the events of the following months and all the explanation the teachers could coax from him was that he had fallen in the stream trying to loose the lantern, no accounting for the missing hour. Nevertheless, they sent him home. His mother fussed over him when he came home but wasn't too worried; by then, the bump on his head had faded, and he seemed happy enough (he was smiling after all she thought to herself). They moved on, and the incident was almost entirely forgotten for the time being.
One week later, they found the first one, floating in the waters of the bathhouse, spinning away like a Ferris wheel. Alerted by the shriek of Hàorán's mother, Hàorán and his father came running into the bathhouse. They saw there, floating serenely in the center of the tub, a grotesque snarl of rats bound in the center by their tails, each of their heads lolled to the side as if held on only by a thread. Hàorán's father fished it out with a net, but his mother refused to enter the tub for two days and spent the subsequent two days scrubbing out the inside of the tub until her hands were red and raw.
After this, it seemed they found another of the rat kings at least once a week, lying on the doorstep, or gorged until their bellies burst in an absurd caricature of barbarous gluttony at the bottom of the rice bins. Though his mother never seemed to grow used to the angry tangles of rodents, his father seemed unbothered by the monsters and just tossed them out into the woods with an offhand comment about needing to buy some more poison. Barring the rats, the weeks between mid December and the beginning of February passed with little to do. One notable thing did happen though, it happened slowly at first, but then all at once Hàorán began rising in the ranks of his classmates, until on the first day of February Hàorán was only two below the top student in his year. How this had happened no one was quite sure, as Hàorán seemed to be spending all of his time out back under the cherry tree sitting perfectly still as he watched the bugs and the critters scrabble around in the dirt.
His mother awoke late one night, two days before the new year, and found the light in the backroom still on. When she went to turn it off, she glimpsed Haoran through the window, hunched over that piece of wood he looked almost wild, his hair was long and shaggy, and as he turned his head towards the light she could have sworn she saw his eyes glowing a deep yellow before he turned back to his work. She stepped out the back door of the porch and grabbed his shoulder meaning to pull him inside, but when he turned his face towards her she stepped back in shock. In the dim light of the moon his face looked harsher, older, and his eyes once again glowed that dim yellow. Though she would deny it if anyone asked, in that moment Haoran’s mother felt gripped by a hatred stronger than any she had ever known, she was disappointed, no disgusted by the creature that was her son, it made no sense she should have felt overwhelmed with joy at his newfound success, but looking at his face unrecognizable in that light she just felt sickened. Haoran leaned forward farther into the light of the porch, and the illusion vanished, his face that of a small boy once again, and his mother shaking slightly wordlessly pulled him inside. But later in the early hours of the morning she lay awake, with the image of those deep yellow eyes looking up at her embedded in her mind.
The following day was New Years Eve which left little time for her to ruminate on these disturbing images. Hours were consumed in a whirlwind of cooking, cleaning, and other preparations for the great feast that night. Haoran’s absence went unnoticed until it came almost time for the meal and he emerged from the backyard his hands cupped together, protecting whatever it was he had found. As he approached his mother she looked down at him wearily expecting a grasshopper or caterpillar, but when he opened his grubby hands and looked up at her with that same faint smile and yellow eyes she didn’t recognize, for the first time in his life she nearly slapped him for held in his hands was a small rat. She realized only a moment later as it came tumbling from his hands that it was made of rubber, as Haoran collapsed backwards in fits of giggles, she allowed a smile to come to her own face: maybe things were alright after all.
After a firm reprimanding she sent Haoran off to wash up and prepare for the meal. The table was set with their finest plates and the red lanterns that were strung from the ceilings and the doorframes gave the room a soft glow. The table was covered in a huge feast, fish and spring rolls and rice balls and noodles, but at the head of the table was the star of the meal. The fine dumplings that Haoran’s mother had spent all day slaving over, aromatic steam emanating from the wicker baskets. As Haoran’s father sat at the head of the table, his family settled around him, they welcomed in the new year with hope for good fortune and success. With a flourish he removed the top from the wicker basket and nested inside were four white rats, bound at the tails and emitting thin trails of steam from their slowly cooling bodies.
That was the last straw for Haoran’s father, his mother’s last straw had been gone long ago, but after this it was declared that Haoran had to take down his feeders and throw away the terrariums. That was the only possible cause for this plague they had been inflicted with. Haoran took this all with a silent understanding. No one seemed ready to acknowledge the fact that the rats couldn’t have come all the way in from the feeders climbed in and closed the basket and steamed themselves. So instead they took to setting poison traps in every corner, Haoran’s father lined the bottoms of the doors with foam to keep them from getting under, and Haoran’s backyard setup was dismantled, destroyed, and dragged away. His mother tried to pacify him “it’s for the best” she said “you can use the extra time to study for the final exam, you have a good chance of scoring at the top of your class this year.” Haoran seemed less than enthused by this suggestion but took to the task with diligence.
March and April came and went along with the QingMing that accompanied it, and his father noticed with some pride that he seemed more attentive to the grave cleaning and his honoring of his ancestors than in years past, and when the time came for his final exams, as his mother predicted he came in the top of his class, but when she asked if he wanted to do anything to celebrate he just said no and walked out to the backyard to sit in the branches of the cherry tree and watch the birds fly by. It occured to his mother then just how little she recognized her son, it seemed that in these past few months he had aged ten years. His demeanor had changed to, he was no longer the vague young child so occupied with the world around him, he seemed different now, harsher somehow despite that infernal smile he always seemed to wear.
These last few months had worn on his mother more than she liked to let on, in addition to her growing concerns for her son, the rat kings had become a constant source of terror in their life. While before they had only been found dead once a week or so, but now they were lucky if they passed a day without finding one, and Haoran’s father said that last week the one he had pulled from under the edge of the bed had still been alive and biting ferociously. So when he had suggested that they could take a trip to the city for a few days to celebrate Haoran’s accomplishments she had been relieved. But Haoran had turned it down, she realized now, as she sat watching him in that tree staring up at the sky, that he looked as if he were waiting for something to arrive. A horrible thought entered her mind, she wished something would come and take him away, take away this creature that was not her son, but she shook her head immediately disgusted by herself and turned to go back inside opening the door to find another snarl of rats lying on the doorstep.
As the weeks passed, the rats only became more frequent. Each one was alive now, trapped in a ferocious tangle spinning through the house leaving chaos and filth in their wake. It seemed to Haoran’s mother that they were getting bigger and more ferocious too. Gone were the small white rats that had graced the table on New Years Eve, replaced by these wiry black rodents with piercing red eyes and fangs half an inch long. They called an exterminator who said he had never seen anything like it before and laid more traps. But as the days passed it was clear that it wasn’t just not getting better, it was getting worse.
All this to do came to a head on the day of Haoran’s eighth birthday. They had spent the morning visiting the temples and their relatives, his mother spent the afternoon baking him his favorite cake: double chocolate with strawberries and vanilla icing. Haoran had taken to spending all of his time in the branches of that cherry tree looking up at the sky, watching and waiting. He was so entrenched in this practice that when it came time for his own birthday dinner his mother had to go and remove him from the tree, pulling him into the house with her hands over his eyes. As he was seated she removed her hands, revealing to him the full grandeur of the scene laid out before him. Bowls of longevity noodles, platters of dumplings, and right in front of him was his birthday cake, three layers tall and alight with candles it was a sight to behold. Yet all Haoran did was sit there and smile that same dull and vacant smile. Determined, his mother set on his head a paper crown made by one of his cousins as a gift and lifted the knife to slice the cake.
She should have seen the signs, she should have seen the way his eyes glinted yellow when she lifted that knife, or each time they found one of the rat kings a tangled mass of death, she should have been more attentive to the way he watched the sky with that far off look as if waiting for something to come. Most of all she should have noticed that as she raised that knife, the look was far from his eyes, for the first time in months Haoran’s eyes were sharp and full of intelligence, and that dim smile his mother had come to loathe was gone, replaced with a gap toothed grin. He was done waiting, and no amount of noticing by his mother could have predicted what came next. As she brought the knife down the three layers of chocolate, strawberries, and cream, for a moment everything was alright, but when she withdrew the knife, red with the blood of the rat king that was baked into the center of the cake. Time seemed to freeze for a moment, Haoran’s mother holding a bloody knife and a slice of cake as she stared down in horror, Haoran’s father confused but resigned on the opposite side of the table, and Haoran himself sitting contentedly grinning that terrible grin with a paper crown balanced lopsided on his head. Then time caught up to them, and all at once, every nook and cranny of the house erupted, rats streamed from the walls, the floors, the ceiling. It seemed as if the very boards of the house itself were issuing rats. As the tidal wave swept through the room his mother screamed, dropping the knife, impaling one rat before turning to flee and immediately being swallowed by the sea of lashing tails and coarse wiry fur. His father never stood a chance, seated on the opposite end of the table, he was swallowed as soon as the ceiling started raining the creatures, but through it all Haoran sat there grinning happily. As the flood continued and the air all around him filled with the sound of scrabbling feet he took a fork to his birthday cake, after all the rat king had just turned eight and while isn’t that a cause for celebration.