February 13th, 2023
written in Russian by Jonathan Vidgop
translated into English by Leo Shtutin
This story was featured on Kitaab on February 11, 2023.
Click here to listen to this story on the podcast.
My room is very small. I can traverse it in five steps, turn right or left, depending on what wall I’m walking along, and take three further steps. My room thus resembles a Christian coffin or an antique pencil box with a fitted wooden lid. But my door is reinforced with iron, and floating fish-like in the little porthole cut into its centre is the great eye of some unknown warden. A repulsive oily colour covers the walls—a colour to which the grey fur of my little friends stands in most agreeable contrast.
There are five of them, my interlocutors. The trouble is that we’re all of us intelligible only to ourselves. Their shrill, scarcely audible squeaking is incomprehensible to me—I cannot so much as discern modulations in it; and my speech, for them, is but a dull drone. My grey friends began putting in appearances recently, when I realized that my stay here has no time limit.
In the middle of the night I awoke on the cement floor, swaddled in my loose mackintosh, and saw a pair of little sparks ablaze in the half-dark. A pair: another: yet another: still yet another: five pairs of eyes, regarding me intently. Abrim with all manner of prejudice, I leapt to my feet in a trice and pressed myself against the wall. The rats shrank back, too, then froze stock-still.
Our natural state is war. Though why this became the case is beyond anyone’s ken. Recalling legends that tell of rat-devoured babies, I aimed a blow with my foot. But the creatures did not stir. It was only later that they repaired to a corner, unhurried, quiet, self-assured, and vanished into it, one after the other. I waited a long time that night for the reappearance of tiny blazing eyes. But they did not show themselves. Nor did they do so the following night. They materialized only when I stopped waiting for them. Lining up unhurriedly along the wall, they fixed their gazes on me once again. We passed two hours or so in silent face-off. Then the neat little rat-column vanished into the corner.
Why are people afraid of rats? Why are rats afraid of people? In rats’ eyes, no doubt, people are repulsive and hideous. Grotesque two-legged creatures who’ve sworn to eradicate them. Why are we enemies? The rats have done nothing to me that would cause me to kill them.
They’ve started to come every night. I know everything about them. They’re old as the world. They almost triumphed in a great battle under the banner of the plague. They were forced back into the cellars. They survived. They multiplied. And now they’re biding their time. Memories of how they advanced down cobbled town streets in living grey masses, filling those streets to the very brim, disturb them. The burden of heady victory, frenzied feasting and erstwhile greatness has been handed down to them by their forefathers. But new generations have risen in the interim. Should they join battle?
They materialize before me: five warriors. I’m more cowardly than they. They’re confident and calm; I’m short on sleep and short on patience. Panicked now, I lunge at them, aiming clumsy kicks in their direction. They’re more agile than I am, and dodge my feeble attacks without any trouble. And now they’re behind me, stock-still once again, save for their long, whip-like, madly writhing tails. All five eye me with dispassionate gaze.
Strength sapped, I sink to the cement. Their nerves are stronger than mine. Well, let them attack. I cover my face with my hand—only for them to withdraw with a haughty swish of their whips.
I’ve heard it said that rats are unusually intelligent. Indeed they are: they could have attacked me, but they did not. They find me interesting. We scrutinize each other assiduously. I think they’re wiser than I am.
I try to corner them. The creatures grumble with displeasure. Were someone to attack me, I’d grumble too. Like them, I’m hungry all day long. Our diets differ, but we’re on the same page. Perhaps the fact I have a god sets me apart from them? But who says they don’t have a god themselves?
I awake once more. Sat in a semi-circle, they’re watching me intently. And now they rear onto their hind legs and stand unmoving, supported by their sturdy tails. Would boots and leather sword-belts complete with countless narrow straps look good on them? No. They’re just animals, soft and silky of fur. Quietly, lined up in their usual column, they vanish.
Breaking off a hefty chunk of plaster from high up on the wall, I find their hole and drive in the chunk. Farewell, friends: I’m frightened to be in your presence. I hear a quiet rustle behind my back. They’re sitting in their semi-circle. They’ve tricked me—slipped imperceptibly out of their hole while I was breaking off the plaster. Which I’ve driven into the hole with my boot. Wedged it firmly in place. And trapped us all in this room.
I share my meagre victuals with them. I eat in great haste, swallowing down mouthfuls. Unlike me, and contrary to legend, none of them pounce on the food with a vengeance. Their white teeth work at it patiently.
Perhaps I could tame them? Just, of course, as they could me. I can tell them apart now. No doubt they all have names of their own, though I shall never know them. Could they be new wardens, come to watch over me? Or chroniclers, perhaps?
We don’t discommode one another. I fear them no more. They’ve done me no evil this entire time. I think they’re as harmless as I am.
Sitting circlewise, they converse amongst themselves. The screak of their voices sounds like far-off, ill-tuned violins. I address them. They turn quizzically towards me. It’s true: I’ve disrupted their conversation. What can I tell them? They know it all without my saying a word.
Beyond the bounds of my room, autumn has been and gone. The cold seeps through the walls, and my mackintosh can no longer shield me against it. The cement floor is worse than ice. It sucks the warmth out of my body. Every night finds the creatures lying beside me, their little bodies nestled into mine. Are they feeling the cold? Or are they doing this specially to keep me warm? As we lie unmoving in the dark, I feel the hot coursing of their blood, feel it pulsing warmth into my core. We lie there like six warriors on some unknown battlefield.
Before long it’ll be difficult for me to imagine life without these quiet, severe creatures. I don’t feel like I’m their leader. We’re equals. How good it is, when you’re half aslumber, when it’s deadly cold beyond the walls, to feel a warm, grey little body against your bare hand. How swift their breathing as they press their whiskered muzzles to my shoulder; how deft and noiseless their movements as they scuttle up my neck. Their teeth are so sharp that their bites hurt me not at all. My only displeasure is the hot stickiness of my own blood. But they work at me with such diligence that I soon cease to feel its flow.
I do not open my eyes: I’m sure they’ll perform the deed well. They’re no stranger to it. We are, after all, but warriors of opposing armies who have encountered and recognized one another.
Jonathan Vidgop is a theatre director, author, screenwriter, and founder of the Am haZikaron Institute for Science and Heritage of the Jewish People in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Born in Leningrad in 1955, Jonathan was expelled in 1974 from what is now called the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts “for behavior unworthy of the title of Soviet student.” Having worked as a locksmith, loader, and White Sea sailor, he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in the Arctic Circle. He is the author of several books. Two chapters from his latest novel, Testimony, accepted by the leading Russian Publishing House NLO, “Birdfall” and “Man of Letters,” were published in English in Goats Milk Magazine and The CHILLFILTR Review. A story was recently accepted by Los Angeles Review, and another by Pembroke Magazine. The story “Nomads” is the recent winner of the Meridian’s Editors’ Prize in Prose.
A graduate of Merton College, Oxford, Leo Shtutin is a freelance translator from Russian and French and has worked for online publications such as The Calvert Journal and Open Democracy. His translation of Death of a Prototype, a novel by the contemporary Russian author Victor Beilis, was published by Anthem Press in 2017 and nominated for the 2018 Read Russia Prize. Between Page and Stage is his first book.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.