9.8 / August 2014

The Rat by Sólrun Michelsen

translated by Matthew Landrum

He usually leaves it in the garden. Covers it with mulch. When the last remains of summer are long-gone and autumn fades toward winter, he covers his heart the same way he covers the most fragile flowers, covers it well, so the frost won’t finish it off completely.

When spring returns yet again, he exhumes it from time to time and listens to the weak heartbeat together with the small stirrings of different seedlings and root vegetables.

When summer comes, he ties his heart to a string and hangs it around his neck. Then walks in and out of doors. The heartbeat weakens every time he enters the house, but this time of year he is outside so often that it doesn’t matter.

It’s different in winter. Then he has to be inside so much that his heart can’t stand it. That is why he buries it.

Even though he pines for his heart, there’s lots to keep him occupied during the winter. Such things that don’t require a heart. Such as multiplying and adding sums.

All winter long he counts. Page up and page down with numbers that are only numbers. They are exactly the same, once you have counted to nine. Just repetitions.

Also he fixes up the house in the winter. Paints and hammers and sets mousetraps in the pantry. No heart’s required for this.

He also picks at candlewax. He likes candles so much. He keeps them burning all winter all around the house, but they leave lots of stains, both when he blows them out and when he moves them. So that’s work in itself.

More than once he’s thought about getting himself a candle snuffer, but he holds off. He needs the work. Wintertime passes, and he can think about the spring and summer as he’s picking.

His wife ran out on him two years ago. Then his heart grew sick and was only comfortable outside where he tried to nurse it.

When the first shock of her leaving had subsided, he’d expected that his heart would start thriving again, but it didn’t. He tried several times. He didn’t really want to believe that it was so bad, but was shocked to admit that his wife had given his heart a wound which wouldn’t heal.

When the longing gets too strong and spring is a long time coming, he goes out and puts his hand on the place where his heart lies.

That sometimes helps a bit.

Then he goes in again and gets himself a big glass of schnapps. It warms the black hole where the heartroots once were planted.

He often stands by the window and looks out over the wet frost-covered garden, as if he wants to will spring to arrive and the flowers with it.

This has made his neighbour feel uncomfortable, and he’s put up curtains in the window that faces the street.

But the neighbour doesn’t bear a grudge. He just knows that he has to watch.

Winter drags itself out, not like summer which just flies by.

Once he tried to shorten the time by building a stone wall outside, while snow was still lying in drifts, but this gave him visions of the garden, more beautiful than ever, and that started him longing for his heart again, so he had to let wall making be and head inside again.

He sighs every time he sees the stones strewn about in a heap. But when spring comes… When spring comes he will start construction again and then he’ll plant flowers so they’ll grow along the wall, and the stones will soak up heat from the sun so the flowers will be even more beautiful than before. He can hardly wait.

One cold winter day, he goes to the pantry to fetch a dried leg of lamb and he sees that there’s a bit missing. Someone has nibbled off a big piece. He starts back and looks down on the floor.

There he spots the culprit.

A big rat sits curled up in the corner of the pantry. One of her front legs is stuck in a mousetrap. He looks at her for a moment and wonders what he should do. She stares back. She sits stock still.

He backs out of the pantry and closes the door. Then he fetches some thick gloves and an old birdcage he has in the attic.

The rat tries to escape with the mousetrap on its front leg. She runs right toward him and is just about to escape between his legs when he manages to capture her.

She struggles to escape but he manages to hold her while he releases her from the trap. Then he sets her into the cage where she settles to lick her wounded front leg. She is extremely thin. Maybe she’d been stuck in the trap for days.

He grabs something for her to eat. She’s famished and gorges herself on what he sticks between the bars.

While she eats, she peers out suspiciously.

The longer he watches her, the more lost in thought he gets. He feeds her and talks to her, but she only looks at him with that insidious look that makes him think about his wife.

He begins to call her by his wife’s name, Alma. Yes, Alma. That’ll be her name. He sighs. He never did manage to tame that wife of his. God knows he tried. And in the end, when he locked her in, she had run away. And not just run away. She had also wounded his precious heart.

But now he feels the thrill again. The thrill that came from the quiet battle between them over all the small everyday things. Vicious as she was, she often said that she liked making everything into a battle, and that she couldn’t let him win every time. And for every loss he suffered, his resistance against her grew stronger.

He feels alive again. He has to admit that he has missed this game more than he knew.

While he stares at the rat, it occurs to him that he has been given another chance to get this right again. Yes, if he uses the right method, he might be able to liven up his heart again, so that he can keep it inside all year round.

Now he also has Alma where he’s always wanted her. This time she won’t succeed in escaping. And when he has her properly trained, she won’t think about running away.

He gives her loads to eat, and she fattens up and grows quieter.

Or lazy might be the better word, he thinks. He talks kindly with her, and she looks at him and puts the nose up into the air so that her front teeth are showing. He starts to feel a certain affection for her.

First he moves her from the pantry into the kitchen, where he spends the most time, but after a while, he also takes her up with him to the bedroom when he’s going to bed.

It’s so nice to hear someone rustle in the dark and to have someone to say goodnight to.

It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t answer. She never has.

Time passes and one day he decides that the time has come to try the next step. Alma shows good behaviour. She sniffs at him when he comes close and seems mostly friendly. Yes, certain signs even indicate that she understands what he says to her. He smiles and praises himself for his great patience. He has managed to build up a good sense of trust between them, yes better than ever before, so now he should be able to touch Alma.

She is so beautiful and pleasant. He looks at her affectionately. Her fur reflects the light. This is something completely different than that poor dishevelled thing he saved from the trap.

He doesn’t hesitate any longer, but carefully sticks a finger into the cage to stroke the rat’s back, but then she suddenly turns around and bites him on the finger, drawing blood.

He curses and kicks the cage so it bounces along floor.

He wraps the finger in a handkerchief and goes out into the cold garden to try to calm down.
He is agitated and very hurt. But what else could one expect from Alma. She’s always been a beast. She’s never been anything else. This is the second time she’s done this to him, but this time he’s given it his all and really done his best, and all for nothing. He feels tears in the corners of his eyes.

That he should ever have met her…

He stands awhile and looks at the place where he’s covered his heart with sod, missing it dearly.

Then an idea strikes him.

If he buries Alma the same way he has his heart, maybe he’ll be happy with her when he digs her up next spring.

He feels warm inside. Maybe everything isn’t lost anyway. This could teach her once and for all. Now he can get two birds with one stone.

He is so excited that he doesn’t notice the cold, even though he’s in his shirtsleeves.

He fetches a shovel from the cellar and digs a pit right by the place where his heart lies.

Then he fetches Alma, who thick and fat runs inside the overturned cage, carries her out and puts the cage into the newly dug hole.

He looks at her, and she looks back with her black eyes.

Then he fills the hole with dirt and covers it with mulch. He tamps it down with his hands. He stands there for a while and wipes his dirty hands on his trousers and then smiling goes back inside to hang up the shovel.

Translator Bio: Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His translations have recently appeared in Asymptote Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, and RHINO. Author Bio: Sólrún Michelsen was born in The Faroe Islands in 1948. She started writing poetry, novels and fantasy for children, progressing into adult fiction (novels and short stories) as well as poetry and psalms. In 2008 she retired from her job as CEO of the family business, to write full time.