Episode 8 Roscoe and the Invasion of the River Rats

By: Sarah Bodine

Volume 19, Issue 6, June 2024

See Introduction: Roscoe Fish Stories, January 2024

  1. Episode 1: Roscoe Fish Goes "Boying"!  January 2024
  2. Episode 2: How Roscoe Fish Got His Name, February 2024
  3. Episode 3: The Journey Downriver, March 2024
  4. Episode 4: The Perilous Escape, March 2024
  5. Episode 5: Boying, The Lost Bait Can
  6. Episode 6: Boying - Of Storms and Shoals
  7. Episode 7:  The Fish Grove, Part 1
  8. Episode 7:  The Fish Grove, Part 2
  9. Episode 7: The Fish Grove, Part 3

A Summer Storm

During the hot summer days of August, traffic on the surface of the river was at its peak, while below, at Roscoe’s level, fish movement had slowed down. Most fish had escaped the heat by diving to deeper water out in the channel or swimming upriver to Lake Ontario. Roscoe enjoyed resting in his cave at this time of year, partly because he was tired of traveling, and partly because temperature readings from his deptherm told him that his cave was the ideal place to be.

On one such hot afternoon, Roscoe was lounging on the ledge beside his exercise rock, just inside the mouth of his cave, alternately reading boying adventure magazines and dozing, when heavy raindrops startled him awake. With the rain came wind that whipped the water up into white caps. All of a sudden, big ice balls began to sink into the river. The hail fell in buckets. Hailstones hit Roscoe on the head. Even though he darted inside, the hail followed him, bouncing into the cave and under his bed. Hailstones filled up all the rock crevices. Checking his deptherm, Roscoe noted that the water temperature had fallen 20 degrees.

The noisy hail stopped as quickly as it had begun and Roscoe guessed that the storm had blown over.  Venturing out of his cave, he saw heaps of icy white stones piled up on the river bottom, blanketing it in shimmering crystals, as though a glass snowball had been shaken.  The river topside was eerily still. Roscoe was so enchanted by the unfamiliar ice formations that he forgot which way he was swimming. And before he knew it, he saw the familiar flag on the smokestack of the Frost Diner. Undeterred by the weather, Percy had just opened the hatch, inviting fish in for a light dinner.

The Minnow Bar, which was located amidships, was the perfect shelter after the storm. The rock stools could comfortably seat 30 fish at a time. In fact, usually the Minnow Bar was jammed every night, and, on weekends there was often a line of fish treading water, waiting for a rock stool to free up. Hanging above the center of the bar were rows of hollow reeds filled with bubble drinks. To encourage snacking, Percy created an appetizing display at the back of the bar. Bunches of small, flat, leaves filled with tasty bites of worm or caterpillar, or seaweed-wrapped grubs, moved along a water chute as though washing downstream with the current. Fish could order a full meal, bar food, or takeout.

Rose was so efficient as a breakfast waitress that Percy hired her to tend the Minnow Bar in the evening. She served bubble drinks and took food orders with lightning speed, never writing anything down, and entertaining everyone with riddles. Some of the questions were easy: What did the fat muskie order for lunch with his minnowburger?

Answer: Small flies.

And some were very difficult: There is an island in the middle of the River, just on the border between Canada and the United States. The island sits in a large expanse of water, and there has never been a bridge connecting it to the mainland. When visitors come to the island, a motorcar drives them from the dock up to the main house. The car, a Ford Model Sea, was not transported to the island by boat or by air. Nor was it built on the island. How did the motorcar get there?

Answer: The car was driven out to the island in the winter, over the ice.

Rose learned the habits of every fish and was ready with everyone’s favorite slime shake or frappé St Laurent as soon as they slid onto a bar stool. Only the large-mouth bass gave her a hard time. Large mouths were known as the clowns of the River. So, for example, they lingered at the Minnow Bar after hours, when Percy had gone home for the night, and showed off, performing stunts such as somersaulting backwards over the old ship’s railings. They invented contests, like who could swallow 10 whole beetles the fastest. Sometimes they even made fun of Rose, puckering up their big mouths, blowing bubbles and speaking in itty-bitty voices to mimic the way she talked. But Rose always smiled and dismissed them with a wave of her fin.

Percy came across a very rare and beautiful gray-and-orange electric eel. Fascinated by her internal glow – she could send off low-voltage charges, just enough power he reasoned to keep the little starfish lights bright [Illustration by Sarah Bodine, ©2024.]

Because the Minnow Bar was 100 feet beneath the water’s surface, at night the interior was dark, even too dark for fish to see. So Percy installed sparkling white starfish lights across the top of the bar. He searched high and low for a source of electricity for the lights. And it so happened that on one of his winter trips to the Amazon River in South America, Percy came across a very rare and beautiful gray-and-orange electric eel. Fascinated by her internal glow – she could send off low-voltage charges, just enough power he reasoned to keep the little starfish lights bright – he invited her to come north during the summer to lie at one end of the bar on a moss-green divan, giving off electricity for the lights. In exchange for this service, Percy paid for her trip home each winter and provided a dark, muddy cave for her and her family in both locations, as well as all the food they could eat.

The only problem was that the eel, whose name was Electra, needed to breathe oxygen every so often. Being inventive, Percy figured out how to get air to her so that she would not need to move from her comfortable divan at the end of the bar. He rigged up a hose system that was attached to a diving lung full of air.  When Electra felt the need for oxygen, she grasped the end of the hose, which looked like the mouthpiece of a snorkel, in her mouth and breathed in. It was Elver’s job every morning to fill the tank of the diving lung with air. He would detach the hose from the tank and coil his body around it. Then, with a deft flick of his outer continuous fin, he would release the tank up to the surface. It bobbed around for a few minutes, hissing out CO2 and filling with oxygen. When the tank was full, Elver would yank it back down and set it into place for the next evening.

A Shady Customer

On the evening of the great storm, the clientele at the Minnow Bar had dwindled to a few regulars and some tourist codfish from the Maritimes. As he neared the diner, Roscoe was relieved to see through the portholes that Electra had kept the bar’s lights on during the storm. And, as he came inside through the hatch, Roscoe saw that she had help with extra voltage from her twin brother Orestes, who had come to the River for a visit.

Levi, the sturgeon was lounging at the bar [Illustrtion by Sarah Bodine]

“Greetings Levi,” Roscoe waved to wise old Levi (Leviathan), the sturgeon, who was lounging at the bar reading his astronomy book and slurping a mug of warm caterpillar juice though his toothless mouth.

“How did you fare during the freak storm?” Roscoe asked, figuring that Levi had sought refuge in the quiet diner because the hailstones had pummelled him so hard that he left the murky bottom where he usually found food. The enormous old fish, one of the last of the River sturgeons, was so big that he sprawled over many stools at once, and so he came to the diner only on evenings when he thought it would be empty.

“Do the shadows cover him as his shadow?" replied Levi, who always spoke in riddles and questions. “Does he lie under the shadows, in the cover of the reeds and the swamp?”

Roscoe nodded, knowing that Levi never expected an answer. And, anyway, the old fish had already stuck his nose back into his book. Roscoe usually enjoyed slow evenings at the Minnow Bar, where he could linger, joking and reminiscing about old times with Rose and listening to Levi’s endless musings. But everything felt different tonight, topsy-turvy – something seemed amiss, something he just couldn’t put a fin on.

About half an hour after Percy had packed up and gone home, as Roscoe saw Rose pass by with an empty drink tray, he found himself refocusing his eyes over to a dark corner. There huddled a yellowish figure, perched awkwardly on a rock stool. It had the head of a giant carp – the kind that creep along the shallows of the river –- but its body looked dark brown, almost furry. The creature was difficult to make out, as it had wrapped itself partially underneath the stool. When Rose came by again, Roscoe nudged her, bending his fin in the direction of the stranger. “Have you ever seen that one before?” he whispered. “No,” she said, “And, actually, I have never seen a carp in the diner. You know, their ears are very sensitive, and the noise level in here is usually too much for them. But it’s quiet tonight, and maybe it craves a slime shake. I’ll just go over and . . .”

Suddenly, three catfish, who had been hanging out under the bar, scuddled away, their tentacles twitching wildly. Their sensitive sense of smell had picked up something foul. Both Rose and Roscoe got a whiff of a musky odor coming from the corner. Their fins arched as they eyed each other. “It can only be one thing,” Roscoe hissed, blowing a small, nervous bubble. “River rats! On the loose!” His mind was racing. “The storm. Yes, the storm! The hail must have beaten in the top of their lodge and destroyed their food supplies. They’re out foraging. The empty diner is their target. They probably caught a carp and skinned it. That scout over there is using the carp head as a disguise.”

“It can only be one thing,” Roscoe hissed, blowing a small, nervous bubble. “River rats! On the loose!” [Illustration by Sarah Bodine, ©2024.]

“What shall we do?” squeaked Rose, trying not to panic. “We need to act quickly. Percy is gone.”

The intense smell of musk filled the diner. Roscoe guessed that a gang of rats lay in wait outside, planning to raid the supply drawers. With no time to discuss a plan, Rose went into action. She darted over to Electra’s end of the bar and whispered something to the eel. In an instant, the bar lights went out. The hull was enveloped in darkness.

Just then, a big, hairy snout shoved the entry hatch open a crack. Roscoe twirled around as the hatch slammed shut with a bang. Old Levi, the sturgeon, had risen from his place and in one smooth motion had hurled his body across the doorway. Roscoe knew it was Levi, because he was chanting: “Does he lie across the doorway with his shadow? Does his shadow lie with him?” Then Roscoe heard heavy paws slamming the hull as the rat gang surged around to the stern. Young Elver was already trying to defend the delivery entrance by looping himself around its wide handle. But as the rats rammed the door, Elver’s lean body stretched almost to breaking. He was no match for the bashing claws, and he sank to the bottom as the stern door crashed open.

Meanwhile, back inside, the rat scout had discarded his carp head and was slinking behind the bar towards the storeroom. Orestes, the electric eel, smelled the rat approaching and whacked him with his wide, flat tail. The rat reeled around just as Rose slipped from behind the bar, crossing his path. His paw shot out, grabbed Rose and stuffed her under his hairy arm. Orestes stopped in mid-lunge, afraid of hurting Rose, and the rat scurried into the back room. Waving his free paw, he warned his mates to pack up and get going. They bolted with a few boxes of crayfish and some slime balls. One of them had to shake off Elver, who had wrapped himself around his tail. But as he slid to the floor, Elver spotted Rose under the arm of the rat scout just as its tail disappeared into the night.

In the darkness, Roscoe felt the vibrations of rat feet leaving the diner and breathed a slight sigh of relief.  Then he heard Elver’s faint cry coming from the storeroom: “They have Rose! Hurry! They took Rose!”

Roscoe knew that he was no match for the vicious predators. But his eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark, and he dashed out the back door to watch their escape route. He followed the rats at a safe distance as they veered out of Rockport upriver into Noble’s Bay. They vanished through the narrow canal, which Roscoe knew emptied out into the next bay off Cliff Cottage. On one side of the bay was a wide cattail marsh, in the middle of which lay the rats’ underwater lodge.

Once he saw where the rats were headed, Roscoe zoomed back to the diner. He called to Electra and Orestes to follow him. He guessed that the rats would get bogged down in the shallow canal in a pile of icy hailstones. There was just enough time for him, with the speedy eels, to get to the other end of the canal before the rats emerged.

Electra and Orestes, who were very fond of Rose, were happy to help. As they reached the canal exit, Roscoe whispered his plan: “Get into position, one of you on either side of the canal. Watch for the first rat nose. Then blast it with a bolt of electricity.” Roscoe hung back to watch.

No sooner had the eels gotten into position when the first rat whiskers poked through the mouth of the canal. On cue, the eels produced an immense charge that streaked through the water, surprising and stunning the lead rat. But as the pack scattered, Roscoe made out the scout, with Rose under his arm, poking through the cattails towards the underwater entrance to the lodge.

Roscoe hurried into the bay and tried to get the rat’s attention by leaping clear out of the water, splashing back down two or three times. Then, suddenly, the sky erupted in brilliant fireworks. White bursts of light hurtled out of the darkness. Stars flashed and flared, with tails as long as the rats’. A hot white glare exploded through the water like liquid lightening. The frenzied rats scampered in all directions. Scores of them pushed through the canal exit, falling over the dazed pack in front. In all the confusion, the scout rat was bumped from behind and stumbled forwards. At the same time, his lost his grip on Rose.

Just by chance, on that night, after the turbulent weather day in the middle of August, a vast meteor shower had come to the River.  Roscoe recognized the blazing lights as the so-called Perseids, or “tears of Saint Lawrence,” after the saint who had given the River its name. The meteors came annually, but on this night they were very welcome.

As the last rat vanished, Roscoe scanned the cattails around the lodge. Swimming towards him, limping but free, was Rose. In the chaos, the scout rat had let her slip from under his arm and she had darted away to a safe hiding place. Roscoe leaped once more out of the water, this time for joy. As she came closer, he noticed that one of Rose’s fins had been damaged in the scuffle, but, otherwise, she looked fine. “Don’t worry,” Roscoe said, “your fin will re-grow as good as new.” “I don’t know,” said Rose, “maybe I like it this way – curled. It might just be the new fashion.” And with that she tried to curl up her little orange fin on the other side to match. Roscoe chuckled as they made their way back to the diner to check the damage.

The eels had returned and were outside the diner providing light for the door, which old Levi’s big body was still blocking just in case the rats returned. Levi was still reciting questions to himself. But he sighed in relief as he heard Rose and Roscoe tap three times on the metal hatch, and he lumbered aside to let them in. Roscoe hastened to recite the story of the rat grabbing Rose, the courage of the eel family, the shock from their voltage, and the bright lights of the Perseid meteor shower.

Levi scratched his chin and mused, “Do you know why the meteor shower is named after Perseus? In the Greek myth, Perseus saves Andromeda from the sea monster. Classical perseverance and cunning does a hero make. And that’s what you are, Roscoe, my friend, a hero.” “Aw, shucks,” mumbled Roscoe, not wanting to take credit for the team effort and for the lucky timing of the meteor shower.

Then they all watched as Levi swam off into the night, back to his mudflats, muttering, “And what is a hero? What is a creature without fear? What is in the behemoth’s shadow?”

By Sarah Bodine

Sarah Bodine is a writer, editor, designer and book artist. She spent the summers of her childhood at her great-grandfather’s house, known as Cliff Cottage, on the Ontario side of the St Lawrence River near Rockport. The three Keats children were her cousins, and she often ran an outboard across the Canadian channel to spend the night on Pine Island. John Keats, fondly known as JK, made Roscoe Fish the main character in his bedtime stories, which were loved by all the children. To this day, the next island generation is forever looking for Roscoe under the boats in the slip.

Those of us who read JK's (John Keats, "Of Time and an Island," 1974) books will smile and thank them for the opportunity to read more - even if in the imagination of Sarah and her cousins. Authors and readers will know that our TI Life articles are usually limited to 1,200-1,500 words - but this series of short stories about Roscoe are longer - long enough for all young River Rats to want more! The good news is there will be several more Episodes!]

[From the Editor: In June Episode 8 is in one article. Why? Rose and Roscoe are in trouble and this editor really does not have the heart to split this one up! Enjoy and let us know what you think. . . ]

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 6, June 2024, Fiction

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