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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the August 2014 issue

The Rat

1

This is impossible, Tamara Pavlivna convinces herself, it’s impossible. I live on the seventh floor of a brick building, and the seventh floor—it’s gotta be too high for him. He couldn’t have done this. He doesn’t have enough daring and gall. For his kind, even the second floor is too high. How could he have figured it out? How did he conspire to do this? Everything pointed to him being there, though.

Tamara Pavlivna surveys her kitchen fastidiously. She pulls her kitchen utensils out of the cabinets, sniffs every plate and pan, and rummages through boxes filled with grains and pasta.

And the worst thing, Tamara Pavlivna thinks, is that I have no clue what to do. Moving the pans and pasta around—that’s not a solution. Tamara Pavlivna had never been in a similar situation. She had never been in such close proximity to him. To her enemy.

There might even be more than just one of them, Tamara Pavlivna thinks to herself. If that’s true—then I’m doomed. I have to get the hell out of here.

I’ll gather up just the bare essentials—my passport, money, and my pictures of Sofia Rotaru—and get away from here. Because I’m not going to live in the same apartment with my enemy. I have my pride. I love hygiene and cleanliness. I’m just nuts about cleanliness. Look at my apartment: everything is sparkling and smells nice. Not a bit of dust. Everything in its proper place. Arranged uniformly and neatly, by size and color. But he (or they) has ruined everything. He broke into my perfectly antiseptic life and desecrated it. Now I reek. Yes, I already smell myself reeking. There is no disinfectant that can save me from this horrible odor of rottenness. Tamara Pavlivna tries to push the refrigerator aside, and then suddenly leaves it in peace and plops down on a chair near the window.

But what can I do, she thinks, when he jumps out from behind the refrigerator? I’m defenseless against him. He’ll jump out and right off will throw himself at me. He’ll rip up my face with his claws. He’ll gouge my eyes out. He’ll bite off my nose with his narrow little teeth that are sharp as a razor. Maybe he’s just waiting for me to move the refrigerator and set him free. Maybe he can’t crawl out from underneath it because he has such a big fat belly. No, that’s a mistake, to move the refrigerator. Let him sit there like he’s in prison, and I’ll think about what to do in the meantime.

Tamara Pavlivna notices that she’s shaking from fear and disgust. She feels sorry for herself. Why did this have to happen? Did she deserve this for something bad she’d done? And how is it that someone creeps into your house out of the blue, without permission and ruins your peace and quiet, ruins everything you’ve been painstakingly taking care of for so many years with so much hard work?

I hate him, Tamara Pavlivna thinks. How intensely I hate him.

She gets dressed, puts her passport into her handbag with money and the pictures of Sofia Rotaru, closes the kitchen door tightly, then locks the apartment with her key, and goes outside. Grandma Alevtyna, as always, is sitting on a bench next to the entrance to the building, resting.

“Are you going somewhere, Tamara Pavlivna?” Grandma Alevtyna asks. “If you’re going to the store, please buy me some sugar. I’ll give you the money for it when you come back.”

Tamara Pavlivna can’t handle it. It’s so hard for her. She has to share her troubles with someone. Crying, she hugs Grandma Alevtyna and says hopelessly: “A rat has chased me out of my house.”

Grandma Alevtyna has heard more than enough during her life. It was impossible to scare her or get her riled up by anything. Fearless Grandma Alevtyna has been sitting on that bench by the entrance for thirty-plus years and has helped countless people. People would sit down next to her as though they were just going to rest for a minute, but in truth they would tell her all their problems and listen to her sage advice in response.

But Tamara Pavlivna’s matter won’t be an easy one, Grandma Alevtyna thinks. You’ve come back, she thinks, you’ve come back to take revenge on me.

“Tamara Pavlivna, how do you know it’s a rat?” Grandma Alevtyna asks in a really sweet voice, so as not to stir up an even bigger commotion. “Have you seen him? Rats rarely scamper into tall brick buildings. Mice, maybe, but not rats.”

“It’s a rat,” Tamara Pavlivna answers and starts to sob even harder. “I know it’s a rat. I hear him. I can smell his scent! I hear him digging at the parquet floor behind the refrigerator and his contented heavy breathing!”

“Well, well, Tamara Pavlivna, I believe you,” Grandma Alevtyna says and pats her neighbor on the back. “It’s impossible to confuse a rat with a mouse. I believe you. If you say it’s a rat, then it’s a rat. Only one of those can breathe heavily behind the refrigerator.”

“Boy is he breathing heavily!” Tamara Pavlivna cries. “And the way he scratches—you get goose bumps! And he snores from time to time! If you could just hear him snore! Like . . . Like . . ..”

“Like a man,” Grandma Alevtyna prompts her.

“Like a man! Like a damn guy!”

Grandma Alevtyna dolefully wags her head, and her hands, unnoticeable to Tamara Pavlivna, begin to twitch nervously.

You’ve come back, rat, Grandma Alevtyna thinks, after so many years. You’ve not become lazy. Though you’ve been so awfully lazy. But I’m not afraid of you, Grandma Alevtyna asserts to herself, because I have no reason to be afraid of you. I have no guilt before you, quite the opposite—I’ve done what I had to do.

“What am I to do now?!” Tamara Pavlivna wrings her hands hysterically. “I can’t go back there! I can’t cross the doorstep of my own apartment. He’s sitting there! He’s lurking! Rejoicing!”

“First off,” Grandma Alevtyna begins, “you need to calm down and stop being afraid of him. That’s what he wants. For us to be afraid of him. But in fact he’s just a rat. Dirty, foul, shabby, and putrid, but not dangerous.”

“I know what to do,” says Tamara Pavlivna, “buy rat poison! He’ll eat it and die.”

How young and inexperienced she still is, Grandma Alevtyna thinks, while looking at the forty-year-old Tamara Pavlivna. Naïve. She thinks she can deal with him in such an easy way.

“Yes, maybe so,” Grandma Alevtyna continues. “But the rat won’t touch the poison. He won’t eat it.”

“Why?” Tamara Pavlivna is surprised. “It’s a special rat poison. He won’t suspect anything. He’ll eat it and croak. Why wouldn’t a rat eat a special rat poison?”

“Because he’s cunning.”

Cunning. You, rat, were cunning, Grandma Alevtyna thinks, but I was even more cunning. I fooled you. It couldn’t have been any other way with you—only with even greater cunningness.

“Once,” Grandma Alevtyna says, “a rat ran into my house. I battled with him for four years.”

“For four years?!” Tamara Pavlivna’s head started spinning.

“Yes, four years. We had a kind of game. Who’ll fool whom. Who’ll turn out to be the more cunning. And he lost.”

Grandma Alevtyna proudly straightens up on the bench, as though she’s still fighting with someone.

“Here’s what I’ll tell you, Tamara Pavlivna, go back home. In the end it’s your home, so fight for it. Don’t be afraid of the rat. Live with him. Study his character. Wheedle your way into his confidence. And then, when he stops hiding from you, when he trusts you and lets down his guard—inflict the deadly blow. At the most unexpected moment. Stealthily. Right in the back. In a way befitting a real woman.”

Imagine to yourself that Grandma Alevtyna wasn’t always a grandma. Once, and this was really long ago, she was just Alevtyna. Not a beauty, but also not ugly. Not super smart, but not stupid. Not rich, but not poor. And she had a husband, with whom she lived for four years.

They got acquainted in the technical high school. Alevtyna worked there as a custodian, and he—as a guard. His name was Omelyan. He was fat and clumsy. He loved to laugh boisterously and tell crude jokes.

Omelyan looked at Alevtyna as though he were looking at a full bowl of Salad Olivier that you had to eat up so it didn’t go bad by the next day. Alevtyna mistook this hungry look of his for passion. She married him and brought him home to her house, a tiny cramped two-room apartment.

Omelyan grew accustomed to the place right away. He set out his things, which didn’t match anything of hers, throughout the apartment. He filled up the rooms with his unpleasant scent that truly resembled the odor of rotten potatoes. He was continually rummaging through something, dragging all kinds of crap from the street onto the balcony, saying: you never know when you might need something.

He never brushed his teeth in the morning and, in fact, never even brushed them at all. He never washed his thick red head of hair, never cut the hair that grew from his ears and nose, and grew a long feminine fingernail on the pinky finger of his right hand, which he used as a can opener.

But the worst would happen at night. Omelyan had the habit of eating at night. While Alevtyna was asleep, he would wander into the kitchen and gobble up everything left and right. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, cold, raw, fried, stewed, marinated, and even inedible stuff. Pig lard with tangerines, meat with ice cream, pasta with caramel candies, hot dogs with plum preserves, anchovies together with aluminum spoons.

“What’s the difference what you eat with what,” he used to say, “if everything mixes up in your stomach anyway.” Omelyan left mountains of dirty dishes in his wake, piles of feathers, bones, and crumbs; empty cans, large bottles, glasses, and cups; eggshells on the floor and cooking oil stains on the windowsill. His eyes after the nightly feasts would become tiny and red, sated and happy. The eyes of a rat who’s living well. Alevtyna recognized them. She understood she had gotten lost and would be even more lost if she didn’t fight against him. She had brought home a rat, so now she needed to fight him. It was either him or her.

“Don’t even think about it,” Omelyan warned Alevtyna. “I’m not that stupid. You can’t get rid of me. I’m cunning.”

Tamara Pavlivna goes home and quickly turns on all the lights. At first glance nothing had changed. Everything was the way it had been. But this was just at first glance. He’s been moving around here, Tamara Pavlivna thinks. He’s already been everywhere. And he’s probably even been lying on my bed. And in the bathroom. And he’s sniffed everything on the table. He’s left his disgusting putrid odor everywhere.

But really, why do I have to give up my house to him? The house is mine, and I’ll stay in it, not him.

Tamara Pavlivna turns on the television to keep from being too afraid. But she knows that there—in the kitchen behind the refrigerator—her enemy is lurking. Breathing heavily. Waiting for a suitable moment to strike.

“Ratty-watty!” Tamara Pavlivna suddenly begins to speak. “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m not going to do anything bad to you. Just the opposite, I’ll feed you. What would you like? Some bread? Or sausage? Or maybe a bit of both?”

Silence from the other side of the refrigerator. His heavy breathing stopped too.

Tamara Pavlivna cuts a slice of white bread and tosses it behind the refrigerator.

“Maybe you’d like me to spread some butter on the bread?” Tamara Pavlivna never would have guessed she was capable of such sweet tones. “Some water? Surely you must be really thirsty.”

"Do you want something to drink? Water? Milk? Beer? I have beer for you. You love beer, don’t you?”

The game had looked like this:

“My love,” Alevtyna chirped, “I’ve never even thought about anything like that!”

Omelyan distrustfully screwed up his little red eyes.

“I don’t want to get rid of you! I want to grow old with you and breathe my last on the same pillow with you! That’s what I want.”

Omelyan said:

“Come on, what makes you think I believe you?”

But he liked it. Omelyan could see that Alevtyna was afraid of him, and he didn’t demand any more from his spouse. Fear and love—those are the same thing. At least that’s what Omelyan thought, and to a certain degree, he was right.

He became really careful. He would buy food and prepare it himself. He never let Alevtyna out of his sight. He never left her alone for long, so as not to give her time to plan an attack in detail. Alevtyna would smile and constantly called Omelyan her “love.” She asked him how things were at work and whether he didn’t happen to have a stomachache.

“It doesn’t ache, my love, it doesn’t ache at all,” Omelyan answered triumphantly, looking at his hundred-liter-sized gut. “I have an iron stomach.”

But Omelyan did run into bad luck once. The technical school was robbed on his watch. Thieves had carried off a demonstration machine from the laboratory’s office. Omelyan swore that he didn’t sleep a single second that night. Because he’s like that—very conscientious. He guarded his school faultlessly. He loved it. He even volunteered to poison all the cockroaches in the school. Then this fiasco happens. Nearly unbelievable. They carried out the machine without breaking a single lock, window, or door.

Omelyan came home like a beaten dog. Alevtyna rushed to him with hugs to welcome him.

“My love, how are things at work?”

“Bad,” Omelyan answered. “A machine was stolen last night. They reprimanded me, and they’ll take the money for the machine out of my pay.”

“My poor boy!”

Alevtyna kissed her husband on the head and belly, leaned up against him, purred and fawned over him, like a real purebred cat.

“You just lie down and rest,” Alevtyna hummed, “you need to rest, my love. You’re just stressed.”

True, Omelyan thought, I have to rest. I’m stressed. And he lay down. He covered himself with a blanket, pulling it nearly over his head, so you could just see his tiny squinty red eyes. And he couldn’t sleep. Even at this very difficult moment he was afraid of lowering his guard.

Toward evening Omelyan’s temperature spiked. He moaned under the blanket and Alevtyna constantly sat next to him and kept talking sweetly to him:

“My poor boy! Don’t you worry over that machine! Everything will be fine! You just need to rest. Trust me."

“I’m cunning,” Omelyan kept repeating in his fever. “I’m so cunning! What happened to my cunningness?”

Tamara Pavlivna spreads the bread with butter, puts a layer of liver sausage on it, and throws it behind the refrigerator. On the other side there’s a crunching and a satisfied heavy breathing.

He’s eating, Tamara Pavlivna jubilates, he trusts me.

A month has already passed when Tamara Pavlivna took to fighting him.

“You are my dear little ratty-watty,” she says to him before going to sleep. “I’m going to bed. Don’t be sad there without me. Keep busy with something, amuse yourself. My apartment is at your disposal. Run around as much as you’d like. Don’t be afraid. I won’t do anything bad to you, but have a little bit of decency. Don’t jump over my bed at night.”

Sometimes in the middle of her sleep Tamara Pavlivna rises up suddenly, because it seems to her that he’s right next to her, maybe even under the covers, somewhere really close. In a panic she turns on a night lamp and gazes into the murk of the room. Into every nook and cranny. Nothing anywhere. Silence.

“You know,” Tamara Pavlivna says, cleaning an already clean kettle, “it’s somehow even more cheerful with you, my ratty-watty. Before, I was so lonely, I didn’t have anyone to say a word to. And now you see—I talk incessantly. I tell you everything. I’m jabbering like a chatterbox. You’ll have to forgive me. Do you want some more sausage? I bought Moskovksa sausage. It’s so good, so fatty.”

Omelyan will never forget that kiss. Alevtyna had never kissed him like that before. So passionately.

She bent over him—wet from the perspiration from his fever, exhausted, and miserable—and she kissed him on the lips. Omelyan got incredibly dizzy. He felt somehow quiet and blissful. Not frightened at all.

“Alevtyna,” he said, in his raspy voice, “tell me. Tell me the truth. Do you love me?”

Alevtyna gazed devotedly into Omelyan’s eyes. Thirty seconds, a minute, two. Omelyan kept waiting, and this waiting for him was the most intolerable he had ever felt in his life. He wanted her to say “yes.” After that infinitely lengthy moment, Omelyan would have given his shallow rat soul just to hear her say “yes.”

“I love you,” Alevtyna finally answered.

Omelyan was blossoming. The world around him choked from happiness.

“I knew it,” Omelyan said. “And now, Alevtyna, honey, bring me something to eat.”

Tamara Pavlivna rises up on her snow-white bedding with a shout of despair, but this time for a different reason. The rat had nothing to do with it. She had had a nightmare. She dreamed of Sofia Rotaru.

“My little ratty-watty!” Tamara Pavlivna wails. “How bad I feel! What a terrifying dream I had!”

Tamara Pavlivna loves Sofia Rotaru. She watches every one of her concerts on TV. From the newspapers she finds out tidbits about the problems in her life. And it seems to Tamara Pavlivna, well, she’s certain, that Sofia Rotaru knows about her. She must feel the same strong love for her. Judge for yourself. Each time one of her concerts is on TV, Sofia Rotaru looks right at Tamara Pavlivna. Tamara Pavlivna even tried an experiment. She moved away from her TV to the side, and Sofia Rotaru followed her with her eyes. She sings just for Tamara Pavlivna. She loves her, too. Tamara Pavlivna has no doubt about that.

“And here,” Tamara Pavlivna wails, “I dreamed I was in a concert hall. I’m collecting my money to buy a ticket, and I buy a bouquet of red roses and wait. Sofia Rotaru is on stage singing, as always superbly, and looking just at me. I notice this right away. I smile at her, and she smiles back. I become so happy because my assumptions are confirmed. Sofia Rotaru knows about me, she was waiting for me to finally come to one of her concerts, I give her the bouquet of roses, I start to talk to her.

“She loves me too. And this is natural, ratty-watty, love for love—it has to be like this in this world. The concert is ending, they’re presenting Sofia Rotaru with armfuls of flowers, and I’m not in a rush. I’m waiting for the crowd to disperse. I want to be alone with her. Finally it’s just me standing there with her. The hall is empty. Just she and I. I’m happy—so is she. I extend my bouquet to her. Sofia Rotaru thanks me. I say: I’ve come. And Sofia Rotaru says: thank you very much, come again. I don’t understand. I think, she must be too embarrassed to take the first step. I grab hold of her arm, look her in the eye and say: it’s me, don’t you recognize me? Sofia Rotaru wrenches her arm away, pushes me away, and tries to leave. I think she must be afraid. I say: don’t be afraid of me, it’s me, you were waiting for me, right? And here, ratty-watty, something awful happens. Nightmarish. Two big, tall guys grab me under the arms and drag me to the exit. I scream out: Sofia, Sofia honey, what are you doing? Don’t push me away! It’s me! I love you! But she stands there on the stage and keeps silent. She coldly watches them throw me out into the street like a bad dog. And they toss me out. Into a puddle. I land with a splash. Tears of sorrow mix with mud, and I understand that I’ve been left so lonely, ratty-watty, if only you could know this. How alone I’ve been left!”

Tamara Pavlivna’s body quivers from her heavy sobbing.

Suddenly in the dusk of her bedroom two little red lights shine. The lights come closer. They’re already very close.

“Ratty-watty, is that you?”

There are small but confident little footsteps on Tamara Pavlivna’s bed.

“Little one, have you come to commiserate with me?”

Tamara Pavlivna stops crying. There it is—the crucial moment. Right next to her face, across from her, the reddish snout of her enemy. Tamara Pavlivna strokes the rat along his back, and the rat licks her hand. A single innocent movement, the tiniest single effort—and Tamara Pavlivna will be free again. The thin little neck will crack—and that’ll be it. Here it is—the crucial moment.

Alevtyna gives Omelyan a great big bowl of fried potatoes. Omelyan’s favorite food. The potatoes are steaming, still hot, right from the frying pan, with onions and pepper. Omelyan sets the plate down before him and breathes in the fragrant aroma with relish.

The entire time Alevtyna is next to him, as though she were a soldier on a critical military operation. She’s slightly pale, but Omelyan doesn’t notice it.

“Alevtyna honey, thank you,” Omelyan says, “the potatoes are fried so well, on both sides, just the way I love them best.”

“To your health, my love,” Alevtyna answers.

Omelyan gobbles down the potatoes, and Alevtyna observes him with satisfaction.

“Eat, my love, eat,” she says, “and chew well, don’t just gobble everything down all at once, chew it well.”

Omelyan chews everything well. He doesn’t gobble everything all at once.

How nice, he thinks, when sometimes everything can suddenly change for the better. Just this morning Omelyan had been sure that his life was over, but now he’s happy again. Alevtyna loves him, he loves her and he loves eating. You’re having your cake and eating it too. Both love and food. And you don’t have to be careful. The war was nearly over. They will both get old together and die on the same pillow.

Suddenly the fork falls out of Omelyan’s hands.

“Alevtyna,” he screams, “my stomach has started to hurt!”

“My love, this is just temporary. It’ll pass in a moment. Maybe the food was too good. It happens."

“My stomach! My stomach! It really hurts!”

“My poor boy!”

Omelyan is writhing on the bed. He’s screaming. Alevtyna stands next to him, coolly, as though she were a soldier who wants to see the bomb he launched destroying a big city.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” Alevtyna says. “Be patient. The doctors will help you.”

And she smiles.

“Alevtyna!” Omelyan’s face lights up from a dreadful realization. “You poisoned me! You poisoned me!”

“I poisoned you, my love,” Alevtyna purrs. “Be patient. It’ll all pass in a second.”

2

Grandma Alevtyna sits on the bench next to the building entrance. It’s getting dark. For the first time after two long winter months a fresh spring wind starts to blow from the west. Grandma Alevtyna breathes the scent of it deep into her chest.

Tamara Pavlivna has bought Grandma Alevtyna the sugar.

“Thank you, Tamarochka Pavlivna,” Grandma Alevtyna says, “if it weren’t for you I’d have long been drinking unsweetened tea.”

“Don’t mention it, sweetie! That’s what neighbors are for. It’s no trouble for me to buy you sugar.”

Tamara Pavlivna sits on the bench next to Grandma Alevtyna. Tamara Pavlivna is beaming with happiness—Grandma Alevtyna immediately notices an essential change in her bearing.

“Tamarochka Pavlivna, how are things with you?”

“Good, thank you!”

“How is . . . er . . . your guest?”

“I did things the way you told me to. He’s gone.”

“That’s wonderful!” Grandma Alevtyna rubs her hands victoriously.

How good it is, she thinks, that women know how to be in solidarity. Women never abandon each other during times of trouble.

Tamara Pavlivna enters her apartment. She goes to the kitchen right away to make herself tea.

“Something really funny happened at work today,” Tamara Pavlivna says out loud. “Olena Prokopiv broke her arm . . .” She slurps her tea, it’s hot. “Everything’s gotten more expensive in the stores. A carton of ten eggs is already eight hryvnas!”

Tamara Pavlivna sighs. She looks into the depths of her kitchen.

“I’m so lonely,” Tamara Pavlivna finally says, “very lonely. But now it’s easier for me. I have you.”

 

With gratitude to Svitlana Barnes for her astute editorial suggestions and to Alla Perminova for her assistance with certain sticky wickets. 

"Щур" © Tanya Malyarchuk.  By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Michael Naydan. All rights reserved.

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