Fiction from Joseph Darlington
When they found the rat, Ula screamed. In fact, she wouldn’t stop screaming until the ratcatcher arrived. The girls giggled behind their hands. Anything that wound up the Puritan made them laugh.
They all worked in the house of Pan and Pani Krolig, rich merchants in the port of Gdansk. Ula, the housekeeper, had been hired by Pani Krolig on a trip to Helsinki and, on a normal day, would run the girls beneath her ragged.
“Work work work!” she would say, jabbing a finger at piles of dirty laundry or unpolished candlesticks.
Nothing fazed Ula. Nothing but rats.
“Call for the ratcatcher!” she cried between screams. “Get Alexi! Get Alexi right now!”
The girls giggled again. They turned to the second oldest of them, Alicja, who was chipping potatoes for the pizie. Alicja was studiously ignoring them. Her fingers were pink from the cold and the scalding water. Her cheeks were turning a deep red.
“Why don’t you go and fetch Alexi, Alicja?” one of the girls said, grinning.
“Oh yes!” said another, clapping her hands together and jumping on the spot. “She should! She should!”
“I love how their names both begin with ‘A’,” said a smaller girl in the back sorting coals.
“Yes,” said her friend, throwing a coal into the scuttle, “just like Adam and Eve!”
The first girl rubbed her soot-blackened hand over the second’s cheeks. “Eve begins with an ‘E’ you idiot!”
“I’m afraid I’m busy,” Alicja said, quietly. “There are still a lot of potatoes that need peeling and chipping. I don’t have time to fetch… the ratcatcher. Not if Pan and Pani Krolig are to feed their guests tonight.”
Ula screamed again. “Oh God preserve me! Why is nobody going to fetch Alexi! Help! Jesus Lord help us!”
The Swedish woman fell down on her knees praying. To the laughter of the whole kitchen, the rat took this opportunity to dart towards the wide folds of Ula’s dress.
Ula screamed and rolled around. The rat couldn’t work out if she was attacking or trying to play a game.
Eventually, one of the smaller girls was sent out to fetch Alexi.
Alexi was a young man. Only seventeen, but old enough to have supplanted his father in his trade. Alexi senior had served as the district ratcatcher for twenty-eight years. He had taken over from his father when he was sixteen, after ten years of apprenticeship, and was happy to finally be retiring at the age of forty-two.
Ratcatching might not seem the most difficult or physically demanding trade. In fact, compared to the work of the girls in the Krol’s kitchens, it was a relatively cushy existence. The problems came with the sicknesses.
Alexi senior had caught every plague, ague and fever known to man. He now spent his days huddled in blankets by the fire. His old bones ached with spirochetes. His skin was a patchwork of scars and buboes.
“Son,” he’d told young Alexi, “get married quick. Your looks fade fast in this job, and if a woman’s to have any luck surviving you, she’ll need to be young and fit herself.”
But Alexi was in no rush. He and Alicja had met at the piekarnia, the smell of hot bread rolls filling the air. Alexi had taken a harvest of fourteen rats from the previous week’s traps and Alicja, ever-curious, had asked to see them.
It had been the start of something wonderful.
“There we go,” Alexi said, clipping shut the trap and hefting the now-caged rat up onto his rat-catcher’s pole. The rat from the Krol’s kitchens could sit up there for the rest of the day, happily munching on his bar of yellow cheese, serving as an advertisement for anyone else in need of the ratcatcher’s favours.
It was only half-eleven in the morning and Alexi had six rats up there already.
“God has rescued us,” Ula sighed.
“How much?” one girl said, plucking at Ula’s pursestrings.
Alexi looked around the kitchen and spotted Alicja. Her eyes were still lowered to her task, the potatoes falling through her nimble fingers, shedding their skins like coats and diving into the water.
She didn’t look up but she could feel him watching. She smiled to herself.
“For you lovely ladies?” Alexi said. “No charge.”
The girls giggled and pulled at each other’s sleeves. Ula looked around bewildered. She mistrusted the girls around boys and warned them twice, thrice, sometimes eight or nine times every day of what came of speaking loosely with the other sex. Now, she could smell sex somewhere in the room. Something was up.
“Won’t you stay for some tea, Alexi?” one of the girls asked.
“Oh yes, please do!” the two with the coals, Mari and Nat, echoed.
“Oh no,” Alexi grinned. “I couldn’t impose upon you. Just being in your presence was reward enough for me.”
“No flattery!” Ula corrected him. “You will give them big heads, Mister Ratcatcher.”
Alexi gave a slight nod of his head, bowing to the housekeeper’s superiority.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I shall endeavour not to spoil your girls. Although, being only a humble ratcatcher, I doubt they will take a compliment from me too much to heart.”
“True,” Ula said, rubbing her hands. Her eyes darted around the corners of the room, under tables and then up into the oaken rafters. She feared more rats might be present. Hidden. Hiding.
“In that case,” she said, brushing a loose blonde lock back under her cowl, “why don’t you stay for just one cup, Mister Ratcatcher. I am sure we can spare a little tea. It is only fitting.”
“Only if you’re certain,” Alexi said, pulling up a chair.
“Can I take your rat pole, Pan Alexi?” one of the girl’s said, only eight or nine.
Alexi passed it to her. “You can take it, but get a friend to help you,” he said. “Set it outside the door so that people know I’m here. And don’t try and touch the rats. They’ll bite your little fingers off!”
“Aahhh!” the girl and her friend screamed and laughed. Together they hauled the catcher’s stick away like a totem.
“Alicja,” Ula called. “Stop peeling those potatoes. They will wait! You have been sitting there oblivious this whole time, ignoring our friend the ratcatcher here. Come and put the tea on, and try and be cordial for Heaven’s sake!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alicja replied, setting down her knife. The rest of the girls in the kitchen burst out laughing, then went silent. With excitement, they watched her approach.
“They have a lot of uses,” Alexi said. “They eat all the other pests, for example…”
Alexi was well into his second cup and Ula was quizzing him on rats.
“Oh I know in my heart that they must have a reason. God is a being of all-knowing and all-loving grace and would create no creature without good reason. And yet, when I look at them or even,” she shuddered, “think of them, I just cannot conceive them as Godly.
“Are you sure,” she asked Alexi solemnly, “that they aren’t minions of the Devil?”
Alexi scratched his head. “I shouldn’t think so, Pani Ula. Not the rats that I know, anyway.”
“They can be very clever,” Alicja said.
“Oh really?” Ula was shocked. “And how would you know, Alicja?”
Alicja looked down at the tea-set, silent.
“She’s right,” Alexi confirmed. “Why, a rat has at least the smartness of a two or three-year-old child, I’d say.”
“Such blasphemy,” Ula tutted.
“It’s true!” he said, sipping his tea. “If you make a maze, as I have done before now, using wood and sticks, then put a lump of yellow cheese in it, the rat will solve the maze no problem. You can even watch him thinking while he does it. Sniffing around.”
Alexi lifted his hands up like paws and snuffled his nose. The youngest girls screamed laughing.
“And do you know that the town guard use rats?” Alexi continued. “Yes! Truly! For, you see, a rat can be trained to seek out mantraps. You know, those diabolic devices of flint and gunpowder. The kind that bandits and pirates leave behind in their dens so that nobody comes knocking, and then if they do—then boom!”
Ula turned pale at the thought.
“Well, if they think a house might be mantrapped, the guard let out their special trained rats and, if there’s no traps, they look all around the house and come back for a treat. If there are traps, however, then the rats will sit right on top of them.
“The guard will wait, and, if there’s no sign of the rat after half an hour; then you know the house is trapped.”
“Wonderful,” Alicja beamed. Alexi returned her besotted look.
Ula’s eyes narrowed at this.
“Well, Mister Ratcatcher, you are full of surprises. Now, if you’ll allow me to show you out—“
“Oh, that’s not even the best bit!” Alexi said, carried away now by his own passions. “You know I’d wager a rat, any rat, not even a trained one, could beat your average doctor to a diagnosis. It takes them no time at all!”
“It’s true,” Alicja nodded. The room was on tenterhooks now, listening in.
Ula had stood up, hoping to show Alexi out, but now even she was drawn in.
“What can you possibly mean?”
“What I mean, Pani Ula, is that a rat’s nose is so much more cultivated than our own, so very much more powerful, by Grace of God, that it can sniff out the very sicknesses inside of us.”
Ula stared. “Sicknesses?”
Alexi nodded. He sipped down the last of his tea and lifted himself out of the chair. He pointed to the door. “I could take any of those rats, hold them near your body, and let them sniff. Then, when you listen very carefully, you can hear the rat’s reaction.
“If you just hear its teeth chittering away, you are healthy, it is not interested in you and it is only sniffing to see if there are any bits of cheese or bread nearby. If you hear its voice, however, that is the sound of it crying.
“When a rat cries after sniffing you, Pani Ula, then…”
He paused, swallowed. The room was dead silent. He was thinking of the nicest way to frame it. “…then you must go and see a doctor right away, Pani Ula.”
The girls gasped. Ula did too, despite her best intentions. Alicja glowed. This was the Alexi who had won her heart. The man of a million stories.
“Mrs Ula! Mrs Ula!” covered in coal dust, Mari and Nat were shouting. “Can we have the rats sniff us? Please! Please!”
The girls were all lined up against the back wall. Ula had finally relented. She would let the ratcatcher show them to his rats on the promise that the girls worked extra hard afterwards. There was, after all, an important delegation coming from Muscovy this evening.
Alexi, convinced of his theory, was now holding in his hands the very rat that he’d caught in the Krol’s kitchens not half an hour ago.
It was a big one, brown, and not timid at all. It had clearly been living in the Krol’s house for a while, taking its dinner from the grain stores when it could.
“Alright ladies!” Alexi grinned. “Here’s the rat from your very own kitchen.” He waved it through the air. Ula turned up her nose. “Now, does anybody have a name for him?”
“Ratty!” shouted the youngest. The rest laughed.
“That’s a good name!” Alexi laughed. “Now, everybody say hello to Ratty!”
“Dzien dobry Pan Ratty!” the girls chanted in unison.
“Now when I come to you with the rat, I want you to hold very still. We don’t want Ratty to get scared, and we don’t want Ratty to try and escape. Okay?”
“Okay!” the girls said.
Alexi moved to the first girl. The younger of the two coal-sorting girls was at the front of the line. She winced as Alexi held the rat out near to her. The rat was flustered, writhing a little and trying to escape. Soon, however, it realised it was pinned and gave up the struggle. Instead, its little nose started trembling.
Alexi held it near the girl’s face. Then, with a slow movement, he ran it down her front, down to the bottom of her belly. He then held the rat up to the girl’s ear.
“What can you hear?” he asked her.
The girl was quiet, listening. The rest of the girls looked on.
“He’s…” she swallowed. “He’s, like, chewing and chittering.”
Alexi looked at her very seriously. “In that case,” he broke out in a grin, “you are totally fine. Fit as a fiddle!”
The girls all clapped.
“Oh, me! Do me next!” the girl beside her laughed.
“Okay,” Alexi shushed, “but you all have to be very quiet. Don’t scare Pan Ratty.”
And so the girls stayed quiet in their line. Alexi did one, and then the other. He worked his way all the way down the line, showing each one to the rat and having them listen. Each one heard the chittering, and each one knew they were fine. They were all healthy.
“Now there’s just you left,” Alexi grinned at Ula. “Do you want a check-up from doctor Ratty?”
Ula tutted. She closed her eyes and held her hands together. She was having some swift and silent conversation with God. Possibly asking for courage. Maybe for the Lord to show her the rat’s value, when all she saw was a little demon.
“Fine,” she said. “Okay, you can do it.”
As Alexi approached with the rat, Ula closed her eyes. The rat came close to her face. From behind her closed lids she could hear it sniffing and snuffling.
Alexi passed the rat in front of the housekeeper’s body and then asked her, quietly and calmly, “Would you like to listen to the rat, Pani Ula? Or should I listen for you?”
Ula swallowed. “If you could listen for me, Mr Ratcatcher, I’d be much obliged.”
“Certainly,” Alexi said, holding the rat to his ear.
He stepped back, listening. Ula opened her eyes. The whole line of girls were watching now. They watched the ratcatcher’s face. They tried to read every gesture as he listened to the little ticks and tocks of their trusty Ratty.
“Pani Ula,” Alexi inhaled for a big announcement. “You’re okay!”
“Oh thank the Lord!” Ula trembled, holding her hand to her chest. “Thank the Good Lord. He is merciful. He is just and right.”
The girls were all chatting now, comparing experiences, laughing and giggling about the ratcatcher and his special rat. Alexi smiled at Alicja. She had been behind Alexi the whole time, holding his stick aloft with the five other rats hanging in their cages.
Alexi approached her, Ratty held firm in his hands. He gestured for her to open up Ratty’s cage.
“Wait a minute,” one of the little girls said, pointing. “Alicja hasn’t done it!”
“Oh,” Alexi said, turning red now himself. “If Alicja doesn’t want to do it then she doesn’t have to.”
“No,” Alicja said, “I don’t mind.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure,” she smiled.
“Someone needs to hold my stick while I do it,” Alexi called out. “How about you?”
Mari and Nat ran up and took the stick from him. They held it up straight and vertical, their eyes drawn to the rodents hanging in metal prisons above them.
“Now,” said Alexi, moving Alicja towards the wall. The rest of the girls crowded in around her. They all watched as the ratcatcher brought the rodent up to his lover’s eyes. “Hold still, now. And everyone else too. No scaring doctor Ratty.”
They were all perfectly still. So silent that they could hear the rat sniffing now. It sniffed around Alicja’s blushing cheeks, down her soft bosom and around her belly, then down to the belt of rags and dishcloths that hung around her midriff.
In silence, Alexi lifted the rat away from her body and moved it up to her ear.
Alicja, the girl who always smiled, who had beamed with pleasure from the moment the ratcatcher arrived, now turned stony still. The blood drained from her once-rosy cheeks. Her lip trembled.
“What is it?” a little girl asked.
“Yes, Alicja,” Ula asked. “What do you hear?”
Alicja breathed deeply. Her voice, when she spoke, was trembling.
“It is crying,” she said. “The rat is crying.”
Alexi, panicked, pulled Ratty away from her ear and held it to his own.
He heard it. Clear as day. There was no confusing it with any other sound in the world. The rat was crying for his beloved. It knew, before any human, doctor or professor or magician, could even be able to tell, that his lover, Alicja, with whom he sought to spend his life, was dying.
As she stood there in front of him, unable to meet his gaze, she was dying.
The girls were silent. Their faces were shocked, sombre, afraid.
“Come on girls,” Ula said, “back inside. You have had your fun. Break is over.”
“Take the afternoon off. You must go to the doctor.” Then, as the other girls were sloping back into the kitchens, she added one last word. “I shall pray for you, Alicja.”
“Thank you,” she said.
And the couple were left alone in the kitchen garden. Rats in their hands, silence in the air, and neither with any idea what to say.
Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, UK. His books include the short story collection Avon Murray (No-Name Press 2016) and the academic monograph British Terrorist Novels of the 1970s (Palgrave 2018). He writes poetry about noodles and posts them on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo.