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from the March 2004 issue

The Rat

The terror of the whole neighborhood, which had been so settled and well-off, was a brute, a scamp, and a brigand known as the Hooligan. He was born in the middle of nowhere on an expansive plain, grew up in forests, mountains, valleys, and expanses, and never slept in closed quarters, which leant him a particularly massive nature-an expansiveness of the soul-and fostered the outpouring of his disposition. Yes, it was a wide nature, which recognized no tight recesses and had a fondness for the drink, and his magnanimousness was singularly his own. The brigand Hooligan hated anything tight, narrow, trifling, pickpockets for example, and if he had a choice either to pinch someone or to bash him, he'd bash him-and stomp heavily, widely through the fields, singing at the top of his lungs, "Hey, ha! Hey, ha!"

One had to yield to him. And if someone failed to yield, the brigand Hooligan would bash him to the core with his paw, or would carry him off to a mountain and crush him, or would massacre him straight away, then toss him to the side and continue on his path. But he never committed secret or petty manslaughter, all his murders were grand, bold, expansive, and blaring, performed in a great singing parade: "Hey, my Maria, Maria! . . ." Or: "O my, O Maria! . . ." For he loved this Maria more than anything in the world, loved her grandly, noisily, and widely, with dances, with bowing, with vodka!

Yes, his nature was the widest, as only it could be. He generally didn't understand quiet-and especially the quieting-that quieting which, we might say, is the main feature of thievery in our time-and he even slept noisily, his mouth open, snoring and filling the valleys with snores. He couldn't stand cats, and when he saw a cat he'd race after it for ten or twenty kilometers, while he used to sweep women into his mitt and boom, "Biaatch! Biaatch!" Or shouted, "Hey-hee, ho, hooo! Hooo! Ye-haw." And that's just how he swept up his one and only Maria! Though sometimes he was seized by longing, and then the whole country filled with his blues, pouring out smoothly, sparkling drearily with melancholy, and one could hear by the moon the prayerful, Cossack, Brave, beastly, or else our own native field-wails, the croaks of the bandit: "Hey, hey," he sang, "hey, my lot! Hey, my lot! Hey, Maria! O Maria!" And desperate dogs called back along their pickets, howling deafly and darkly. And finally this howling even infected the people. And the entire neighborhood howled longingly, deafly, and blackly, directly at the moon, which shone down palely: "Hey, our lot! Hey, our lot!"

More and more the songs multiplied and poured out around the brigand. He slowly passed into legend, so that songs were composed about him, either wide for the fields, or grand, murderous, though always with that monotonous refrain: "Hey, ha! hey, ha! Eh, eh, hey, hoo-ha! . . ." And the more songs there were, the more there was breakdown and murder. But in a nearby, fetid, and isolated courtyard there had lived for many years a certain bachelor, a former judge, Skorabkowski, who found himself unnerved in no small measure by the neighborhood's overflowing luxuriance. He ceaselessly, stealthily walked to the authorities with complaints-in the greatest secrecy, just in case.

"I don't understand how you can tolerate it," he whispered. "Murders committed in broad daylight . . . Breakdown and outpouring . . . Antics in pubs. And those songs, oh those songs, those brays, those eternal wails, those howls . . . And that Maria, Maria . . ."

"Whattaya want us to do?" The chief of police was portly. "Whattaya want, the authorities are powerless. Powerless," he repeated and looked out the window at the boundless, fallow fields, from which a solitary tree sprouted here and there. "The people love him. They sympathize with him."

"How can they sympathize with him?!" the former judge bridled, casting a glance from under his half-shut eyelids across the plain ten or more kilometers into the distance, to the sand dunes of Mała Wola, and instantly retreating back under his eyelids. "But they're afraid to leave their houses! He kills . . ."

"He kills, but only a few," the commandant purred against the backdrop of borderless plains. "The rest watch . . . Don't you understand? It's a thrill for them, seeing a good murder . . . Oho," he mumbled, pretending not to notice as a corpse flew up from a cluster of trees, and right away a magnificent lowing could be heard, as though a thousand buffalo were trampling crops and herbs.

The sun was dipping toward the west. The police commandant closed the window.

"If you don't want to nab him, I'll nab him myself," the judge said, almost to himself. "I'll go nab him and lock him up right now. I'll lock him up and take in that wide nature of his. I'll take it in and reduce it a bit."

And the commandant only sighed, "Magnificent! Magnificent . . ."

Skorabkowski returned to his deserted courtyard and, moping about in his tobacco-colored robe, moped out plans to catch the brute. The miser's hatred for that rascal mounted with every moment. The nabbing, the capture, the imprisonment, and somehow, the quieting became an indispensable necessity of his all-too-tight psyche. In the end he decided to exploit the brute's infernal simplicity-he had a habit of simply grabbing his victims-and furthermore, he wished to exploit his growing, already immeasurable rampancy. In essence, the bandit had run so rampant that he'd gotten used to people fleeing from him, so that he took the sight of a person not fleeing, but standing, as a personal provocation. So Skorabkowski ordered Ksawery, his butler, to go up to a tree on a nearby hillock-and as soon as the old servant had fulfilled his master's order, he cuffed him with a chain-and attached the chain to the trunk of the tree. After which, with his own hands, he dug a large pit before his servant, set shackles in the pit, and quickly took shelter in his home. Dusk fell. Ksawery laughed for a long time over his "young master's" jokes, but when the moon came up and illuminated the entire neighborhood, all the way to the distant woods somewhere on the outskirts, the servant started to comprehend why he had been fastened to the trunk on the hillock, why he had been mercilessly thrust into the vastness of night. Dogs howled, and from the reeds rang out the yearning call of the brigand, who was just then indulging in one of his nostalgias of the steppe. And slowly the great and horrible howl "Hey, Maria, Maria, Maria . . ." started to crumble in the night, drunk and longing, unbuttoned, borderless, with apparent abandon. The brigand howled first, holding nothing back, wildly, with neither reins nor reticence, bleeding out his soul, and dogs on leashes howled after him-and then the people, timid and afraid, howled through the air vents of their tightly locked huts.

"O young master!" Ksawery wanted to call out. "Young master!" But he couldn't call out, for the cry would attract the brute's attention . . . and his frightened whisper didn't carry to Skorabkowski, who followed the course of events closely through his air vent. Ksawery cursed the fact that we cannot disappear, that we have to be exposed in full view, that someone else can expose us and do with us what he will. The old servant cursed that the visibility of our bodies is independent of us! But the robber was already rising, was already lifting himself from his lair, and willy-nilly the old man had to catch his eye-to irritate his pupil-to penetrate to his brain along the ocular nerve . . . and the Hooligan himself was already bounding in great leaps to smash his jaw, to crush his nose and chest, to wring his exposed, uncovered neck! Haaa! Aaaa! And just then he fell into the pit and was caught in the snare set by Skorabkowski, who ran up immediately and, with a couple hours of work, somehow managed to bring the murderer's massive body to the secluded basement of his old manor.

Thus the Hooligan was in his power! Thus the little robber Hooligan was dragged into the dungeon, locked in closed quarters, caught on a hook, and at his mercy and non-mercy. The appellate judge rubbed his itty-bitty hands and smiled furtively, after which he thought all through the night about suitable torments. The scamp's elimination didn't please him in the least-tight, narrow, and formulaic, he sort of wanted to tighten and narrow his victim, death was for him a mere trifle, only the narrowing pleased him. The retiree was in no hurry, in those first days he relished one thought alone, that he had the Hooligan in his basement-that the brigand could not bellow or make a peep, for he had been gagged. And just as he realized that the grand brute could no longer bash anyone, that he was quiet-at that very moment the judge Skorabkowski summoned the courage to go down to the basement and, in utter silence, began putting his plans for narrowing and reduction into practice. O, how quiet! How powerful that quiet was that grew from the house's basement and rose in a column. And there followed weeks and months of great quiet, the quiet of an unroared roar . . .

And every day at seven in the evening Skorabkowski, wrapped in his tobacco-colored robe, went down to the torture session, little rods or needles in hand. And every night from seven o'clock the tight appellate judge worked by the sweat of his brow on the voiceless scoundrel, silently, silently . . . Silently he went up to him and tickled him right on his heel for a long, long time, in order to prompt him to make a constricted little giggle, and then he subjected him to petty prodding with the little rods and whittled down his field-vision with the help of boards, pushed pins into him and showed him peas, beans, beets . . . But the robber did not take this silently, only in silence. And his silence grew, crumbled and burst in the darkness, becoming the same as the most magnificent roar-and in vain the judge, in his own soft manner, wanted to overcome the bandit's wide silence-and his hatred filled the dungeon! What exactly did Skorabkowski desire? He wanted to transform the bandit's nature, to remake his voice, to change his wide laughter into narrow giggling, to mold his roar into a whisper, to shrink him and completely compact his figure, in a word, to make him resemble himself, Skorabkowski. He sought his weak points with an explorer's diligence, subject him to specific and horrible trials in order to find that point minoris resistentiae, that weak point through which he could give the bandit what he deserved. Yet the bandit showed no weak points, just kept silent.

Many a time it seemed to the old man that in the course of his complex operations he had achieved some kind of narrowing-yet every week he came to the hour of reckoning, and for the executioner it was a terrible moment, which the miserably quiet little guy feared more than anything in the world. When, every week, he had to remove the gag from the bandit's mouth in order to feed the brigand-O, with what deathly, terrified numbness he, having stuffed his own ears with cotton, placed a plate before the stricken killer and, in one tight movement, pulled the cork from his mouth. And every time he held out hope that maybe he had quieted the scoundrel, even just a little, and that perhaps this time he wouldn't peep . . . And every time the uncorked scamp peeped out a hellish orgy of yells, curses, and roars. "Biaatch! Biaatch!" he roared. "Shithead! Get out! I'll get you! Goddamnit . . . I, the Hooligan, biaatch, biaatch, you bastard! I'll kill you!" he roared. "I'll kill you! Maria! My Maria! Where's Maria, hey Maria!" And he filled the basement with a roar that went all the way into the neighborhood, hurled curses, sang songs, let out his soul, and his torturer, white as a sheet, miserly, shrunken, shoveled food past his lips . . . and he roared between mouthfuls, while the people in the surrounding villages repeated: "That's the Hooligan roaring. The Hooligan still roars!" After these episodes, the former appellate judge, terrified, returned to his home and looked and kept looking for a point minoris resistentiae.

And at long last he found it.

It was a rat.

A strange thing, a rat . . .

When, during one of their meetings, a rat happened to stumble upon the torture session and crept along the walls, the scamp, unshaken till now, shrank.

Skorabkowski pulled the gag from his mouth. But the uncorked brigand didn't let out a yell, but only, tracking the rat, fell silent. He was overcome with incredible revulsion and horror. And once, when the rat scurried on its little paws against his leg, the brigand laughed tightly, in an even higher pitch . . .

At last! At last! How to thank God! On one's knees for this inconceivable grace! At last a way had been found! The appellate judge couldn't hold back the tears! For by Nature's inconceivable whim, everyone, even the strongest person, has in this world a single thing designated for him alone, something stronger than he is, something above him that he cannot stand! And some can't stand primroses, others liver, others get a nervous rash from eating wild strawberries, but the amazing thing was that the murderer, who did not succumb when he was being tortured with rods, nor with pins, nor with any of a thousand most sophisticated combinations, who, it seemed, was the strongest of all, was afraid of a rat. He gave out because of a rat! He was weaker than a rat. God only knows why. Or maybe it was that the brigand, who murdered people as if they were insects, was afraid to murder a rat-ah, but he wasn't afraid of that, of the rat-he was just afraid of a ratty death, he was afraid of that above all else, the death of the rat was for him an inestimable abomination, and he couldn't do it, and no other death, neither the porky kind, nor the vealy kind, nor the human, nor the tapewormy, nor the poultry, nor the froggy was for him one one-thousandth as horrible, repulsive, tight, slippery, elliptical and false as that ratty death! And that's why the horrible murderer was defenseless against the rodent-for him it was the single death that was unthinkable, impossible. Thus he froze and shrank at the sight of the rat, he visibly narrowed and scrunched, trembled and quivered.

At last the old judge Skorabkowski became the Hooligan's master!

And from then on he mercilessly plied him with the rat.

With the rat on a leash he lurked and approached, shrank the scoundrel and narrowed him, or all of a sudden let the rat loose in his pants leg and walled his voice into a squeak, or made him stiffen up, holding the rat above him or, finally, made the rat jump and bump around the increasingly shrinking scamp. The gag was no longer necessary! The Hooligan could no longer scream, let alone roar, and in this way weeks, even months passed, and Ksawery, the old butler, whose task it was to illuminate the rat with a candle, moaned and prayed to himself-and with ruffled hair, with ice in his heart, the old butler begged the rat for mercy, cursed the absolute mercilessness of the rat, cursed these horrible and somehow appalling associations within nature, cursed the limitlessness of mercilessness. "To hell with the rat and the little master and the house and the thief's nature and the judge's nature and the rat's nature, O, to hell with natures and to hell with Nature!" Years passed. The stronger, the more intense the torments became, the more Skorabkowski, with no way out, made use of the rat in this tightening-and the tension mounted, and mounted, and mounted.

And constantly-the rat.

Ceaselessly-the rat.

Solely-the rat.

And the rat, and the rat, and the rat . . .

Until Ksawery, at peak stress, bowed his head and dashed after the rat, which had pulled out of its leash with a squeak and fled, scurried deep into a crack, into a cavity. Then the accelerated servant fell out of joint and struck the judge with his lowered head . . .

Skorabkowski, stressed to the very limit, fell out of joint and lowered his head . . .

And he dashed after Ksawery with his lowered noggin. There followed a crash in the basement, the splattering of brains-ach! And thus the brigand Hooligan was free after eleven years and four months, his torturer having given up the ghost. And the rat was gone! The bandit swallowed hard, thought that it was time to leave-and with tiny movements of his body started to push toward liberation. At dawn, the thief got out of his stocks, squeezed through a door onto a little porch draped with vines, and slipped out into freedom-once a great behemoth, now considerably diminished. Right away he dove off the veranda into the bushes, and he started to move through the bushes along a dike-and meanwhile, the sun burst out over the horizon. All of a sudden, a cowherd called out:

"Hey cow, coooooooow!"

And the Hooligan crouched under a bush as fast as he could. O, how eagerly he would have cosied down, nestled into a cavity, into a crack, into an opening, into a hole, he would have taken shelter in a thicket, hidden his back and the rest of the surface of his body. The brigand glued his eyes to the ground. A light wisp enveloped him, though he didn't savor it at all, didn't sigh or take it in-but only deliberately and carefully kept his eyes on the ground. A single thought absorbed him: What happened to the rat? What became of the rat that Ksawery had scared into the crack in the basement?

But there was no rat.

Yet the Hooligan didn't tear his gaze from the ground. He was all too well aware of the rat's dreadfulness, he had endured too much of the bottomlessness of ratty horror, so that the very lack of a rat was no more important to him than all the sweetest voices and wisps of the world-no, the rest was just an ornament, the rat or the lack of a rat was important! And the bandit's ears were tuned exclusively to little rustles reminiscent of scampering, and his eyes hunted solely for forms reminiscent of the rat's, and every so often it seemed that he was already, already making it out . . . that already, already he was getting it . . . almost hearing and perceiving that skip, skip, hop, hop, scamper, scamper . . .

But there was no rat.

Yet it seemed impossible that the rodent, being in such close, terribly intimate association with his person for so many years, linked to his person in a system of torture, accustomed to his person more than any animal has ever been accustomed to a human being-it seemed impossible that the rodent (bearing in mind the blind attachment of animals) would be able to tear itself away from him, to disappear and give him up, just like that . . .

But there was no rat.

Then an elongated something suddenly, swiftly passed near a large spot of sunlight and stole away . . .

Could it be the rat?

The scamp looked around, ferreted-not quite sure-but again something scurried in the dry leaves.

And again-could it be the rat?

Most certainly-it was the rat.

It trips, and then it skips and skips, That faithful rat! It bumps, and then it jumps and jumps, That faithful rat!

The Hooligan flung himself against a tree and lay in wait in a hollow, and the rat flung itself against a log and lay in wait in the log. But the hollow provided insufficient protection, the unpredictable rodent, blinded by daylight, drawn out from the darkness of the basement, could hurtle toward his legs, could crawl into his pants. Couldn't it happen that the rat, drawn out from the darkness, frightened, exposed, sought to exploit some kind of shelter, something familiar, and what could be more familiar than the Hooligan's pants leg? To what hole was it more accustomed? And the brigand realized that these cracks and cavities he offered, these holes and recesses that he just happened to have in his body and between his body and his clothes, were desired by the rat, were a place of shelter. Thus he burst out of the hollow and, seized with fright, escaped into the open, wherever his eyes led him, and behind him (quite certainly) the rat hurtled along the same path. O, to find a cavity, a hole, a crack, a gap, to cover up one's back and protect one's legs, to take shelter from all directions, to seal off these holes, one's cavities and cracks, so enticing-and the brigand, drawn out onto the land, raced, raced, raced through meadows, groves, valleys, hills, fields, and vales, fleeing with his cavities, and the rat (probably) raced after him. With the last of his strength he leapt into some kind of cavity, into a hole, guarding his cracks, and holed himself up in the straw. After only a couple of minutes, half-crazy, he noticed that the hole he had crawled into was a hole in the wooden wall of a shed-that he had crawled into a barn, or else into a shed. But at any moment the rat could crawl out from the straw and under his arm, or into a hole made by the folds of his shirt, so again he peeked out and watched. But what was this? A dream or reality? Where the hell am I? Ha, that familiar shed! Who's that lying on the clay, on a bed of straw under the opposite wall? Hey, it's Maria, Maria! Hey, Maria's lying here, Maria's resting, Maria's sleeping, relaxing, ah, hey, hey, Maria, my Maria! O my o my Maria! Shrunken, oversaturated with the rat, he fixed his gaze on her, and he didn't want to believe that it was she . . . The girl lay asleep, her mouth agape, and the Hooligan wanted to leap up-already, already he wanted to sing, to roar, as he had a long time ago-as before: "Maria, Maria . . . hey my Maria, Maria" . . .

When suddenly the rat crawled out from the side.

Before Maria, the rat.

This time it wasn't an apparition, but the indubitable, tangible rat hopping four paces in front of him on the clay. The brigand froze. It was probably another rodent-not the one that had tortured him, but another-but rats are so similar to each other, so he who had been tortured couldn't be absolutely certain. Furthermore, he wasn't certain whether his painful association with one of these rodents over many years hadn't left in him something attractive to rats in general. But most monstrous of all, he was afraid of not hopping toward the rat for fear, when the rat was ready to hop toward him for fear-no, no, it was necessary to act cautiously, to show one's presence with the greatest delicacy, to startle the rat only a bit, so that it would return to the safety of the hole. Dear God!-to avoid any sudden movement, not to give oneself over to panic, not to fall into that wild, subterranean unpredictability through the jumping-bumping typified by that terrible, scurrying, squeaking, tailed visitor of the underground! The brigand found a place where the rat's cavity was probably located, and he started to get ready for the delicate, quiet startling-almost completely quiet, with only the slightest murmur or highest possible grunt-when all at once . . . something drew the rat under the girl's right knee. It crawled under there-and the Hooligan froze-that rat touched her, the substance of the rat grazed his girlfriend, his Maria-O his Maria!

And all at once this touching, this brushing of the rat against Maria, the greatest of all terrors, made the bandit . . . roar! He roared as he used to, with his whole chest at all the world, he roared an ancient, incontestable roar and flung himself toward the rat, roaring-he leapt! He was no longer afraid, he leapt with a roar, with a roar he flung himself at the rat, with such a crazy roar, armored in that yell, so that the rat would never ever fight through his roar to his pants leg! He no longer thought about keeping the rat from his crevice, with a roar he flung himself at the rat head-on. O, the Hooligan's urgent step, O, the rat's hop to the side, O, the dodging and heaving and jumping and bumping-and the lightning-quick certainty of the roaring brigand that the rat will not get away from him, that he will catch the rat, that he will kill the rat, deprived of all crevices and holes! . . . And I don't know-what more is there to say? Can the most horrible mouth express it? Oy, it probably expresses it-because, of course, terror knows no limits-but there is a certain limitlessness of mercilessness, that is, that if terror should happen to accumulate, that it's already accumulating, that it accumulates-accumulates, accumulating-without end, without bounds, more and more, growing, that it grows above itself-mechanically. Oy, my own mouth probably expresses that the rat . . . that the half-blind, terrified, hunted rodent, crazy with the blind and absolute necessity of the cavity . . . It crawled into Maria's mouth, scurried, hopped into the half-open oral cavity of the one sleeping with an open mouth. And before the Hooligan could manage to catch himself, he had already seen it: the rat packing off to her mouth, off in a panic to hide in the oral cavity of his beloved! O, mechanics! And Maria, half-conscious, awakened, rather mechanically, instantly shut her beloved jaws-and the mechanics of terror were finished, the rat was finished with its head severed and bitten off from its trunk, and there ensued the death of the rat.

There was no longer a rat.

Yet the Hooligan stood facing the bitten-off rat-death in the beloved oral cavity of his lovely Maria. And with that he left.

It jumped, and then it stumped and stumped, The death of the rat. It skipped, and then it tripped and tripped, The death of the rat in Maria's oral cavity!

From Bakakaj. Published by arrangement with the Andrew Wylie Agency.

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