You just never know. Sometimes it takes someone else's eyes...
The Rat Chancellor
There it was again.
It was the ‘clack’ of the humane trap I had set in the pantry before retiring. The ‘clack’, of course, was the sound of its being sprung.
I glanced at the alarm – two-thirty in the morning – and leapt out of bed, adrenaline pumping, ready to do battle. Grabbing my hockey stick from behind the door, I launched myself through the house, flipping on lights as I went. So far, the trap hadn’t been working all that well, which meant that whatever had been raiding my food supply might still be at large. I burst into the kitchen, straining the hinges when I yanked open the pantry door.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but my ears were working just fine. There was a mad scurrying sound that was making my skin crawl with a dark, prehistoric fear. When I was finally able to focus, I saw a flurry of dark brown fur spinning round and round inside the cage. When I saw the long repulsively naked tail, I screamed and jumped back, feeling pathetically vulnerable even though it wasn’t I who was trapped.
A rat! Oh Christ, God almighty, I hated rats! Disgusting creatures! I had hoped that it was a squirrel raiding my larder. Squirrels were fuzzy and cute. But rats? I thought I was going to be ill.
With the heightened illumination of the kitchen lights, his scurrying had redoubled, threatening to shake the trap off the narrow shelf. Without thinking, I reached out with the hockey stick, pinning it in place. Now what? I realized I had been banking on a squirrel so much that I hadn’t any idea as to what to do next. A squirrel I could release back into the wild, but a rat? Just the thought of setting it free had me writhing with revulsion. No, I would have to kill it. Part of me was savage exultation. I hated that breed of verminous pest with a hysterical, mindless fury. I wanted to kill it. And yet, I was just hypocritical enough to dislike killing anything – alright, to be honest, I was squeamish about it - so was at something of an impasse.
The little bastard had stopped his frantic scrambling. Realizing he was caught, he sniffed at the blade of the hockey stick, whiskers twitching – processing information - then hunched warily inside the cage, watching me with his hostile beady little eyes. He too seemed to be asking, ‘What now?’
Meanwhile, my mind had been racing to find an answer to that question, and came to the conclusion that my squeamishness would have to be overcome. But the cage was a mesh of narrow metal bars some three-quarters of an inch apart. What was on hand to fit through the openings, yet lethal enough so that I might impale the loathsome creature? Wildly, I glanced around, but could see nothing that would serve. Without releasing my grip on the hockey stick, I was able to pull open the cutlery drawer. Knives were too thick, forks too short. Finally I saw the kabob skewers with their needle-sharp points, each about a foot in length.
I took one out with my right hand. Then, choking up on the shaft of the hockey stick with my left, I began to advance warily upon the trap. The rat continued to watch my every move.
He remained frozen until I’d inched myself right up to him, but when I gently lowered the skewer to the cage - took careful aim - and lunged down, he was boiling around inside the trap like a thing demented.
Christ, rats were quick! Swiftly casting ‘careful aim’ to the wind, I found myself stabbing blindly again and again, reminding me uncomfortably of the shower scene in Psycho. You wouldn’t have thought it would be such a hardship, but that rat was a ninja rat with all the moves of a gymnast, and then some. At first I wasn’t even coming close, but the cage was small, and he over-well fed (he should have been, considering he’d been eating better than myself lately) so the odds were on my side. Finally, the tip of the skewer caught him a glancing blow on his disease-ridden, dirty little haunch.
“Ha!” I shouted in triumph. That should slow him down.
I think I expected him to give some sort of ratty squeal – some sort of last ditch rodent-like plea for mercy. I thought myself braced for such a cry, and was determined to see the business through to the end. But, in fact, I was very much not prepared for what came next.
“Ow! Mein gott!” He cried, scurrying ever harder in tight little circles as though chasing his tail.
The information pierced my brain half-way through the next lunge, throwing off my aim.
“Ach! Zat fuckink hurts!”
But…rats couldn’t talk…with or without a German accent.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Oh mein fuckink leg!”
Nope, uh-uh, no way, this was not possible.
“Vat I effer do to you, hein?!”
I thought of making another stab at him to end the issue, but my arm seemed to lack sufficient strength. It wasn’t until my butt hit the floor that I realized my legs shared the same view.
The repugnant rodent stopped his scurrying. Instead, he frantically began to knead the puncture wound with his teeth, pausing every now and then to give vent to his feelings.
“Ach! Ach!” He rendered more attention to his wound, then, “Mein gott, I am goink to get der blood poisonink!” Still more nursing, and, “Ach, zat hurts!”
I didn’t realize I was staring – although I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised I was - until he paused his ministrations long enough to glare at me.
“Unt vat de hell are you lookink at?”
My jaws ‘clopped’ together. Then I blinked, and with amazing presence of mind, managed to say, “Huh?”
He regarded me unkindly for a moment, then swore. “Ach die lieber,” he muttered, “caught by an imbecile.”
“I know my luck I vass pushink, yet ziss embarrassink iss.”
“’Ein more try,’ I tot, ‘He vill neffer know you vere zere,’ I tot.”
He rounded on me viciously. I shrank away.
“Iss zat all you can say is ‘Huh’?!” He did an uncomfortably cruel parody of a halfwit saying, “Huh! Huh! Huh!” before glaring and asking, “Vat are you, hein, idiotten?”
“Oh for der cryink out loud!” he winced, “Ach!” and kneaded his wounded leg some more. “I must haff der disinfectant.”
“Dis-in-fectant,” he glowered, enunciating rudely with every syllable. “You haff some, do you not?”
“Uh…….yeah? Uh…….yeah?” he mimed the halfwit again before screaming, “Vell, do not just sit zere mitt der eyes buggink out uff your head! Go…unt…get it!”
Before I knew what I was doing, I was on my feet and hurrying obediently for the bathroom. In a daze, I opened the medicine cabinet and took out the hydrogen peroxide and some cotton swabs. When I returned to the kitchen, and saw him waiting impatiently, for the first time I noticed a hairy growth on the very tip of his nose that looked oddly familiar. If I didn’t know better, I would have said it was one of those little button mustaches that might have been popular in my grandfather’s time. It made him look a little like a pointy-nosed Charlie Chaplin.
I approached the cage with some hesitation, unsure as to how I should proceed.
“Vell, dumkoff,” he grated irritably, “are you not goink to release me?”
By now my faculties had begun to gather themselves to a limited degree.
“I…uh… don’t think…”
Whereupon with the utmost impatience, incredibly he screamed, “I am der Führer! You vill do ass I say!”
And then I was down on the floor on my butt again.
“Ach! Mein gott!” he muttered, pacing back and forth before swinging on me once more. “Der Führer, dumkoff! I am der Führer, unnerstent?”
“Release me at vunce, do you hear! At vunce!”
The only other item needed to confirm I was losing my mind was if I should allow a rat – talking or not talking - to run free in the middle of my kitchen. Perhaps I was gone, but not so far gone as all that.
This produced another tirade of shrill abuse that lasted for something like ten long minutes. In fact, so wrapped up in his tantrum did he become that I had visions of his leaping wildly out of his very skin, and shuddered accordingly. But eventually, as time wore on and he realized I wasn’t going to budge, he was forced to bring himself under some sort of control.
“I am der prissoner uff a dumkoff,” he said with resigned sadness. “Unt all because I haff der veakness for der bratwürst.” I assumed he was referring to the bit of sausage I’d used for baiting the trap. “Vell,” he gave a dismissive wave with his front paw, “vat do you plan to do mitt me?”
I thought this over seriously before replying.
At which he slumped dejectedly into the corner of his cage and refused to look at me.
Slowly but surely I was able to gather my wits about myself.
“Der Führer,” he corrected, but he still wouldn’t look at me. “It iss a title, not my name.”
“Oh…..uh…..I see,” I lied. “So….uh….what is your name?”
“Truly you are idiotten,” but he lacked any real passion. “Haff you not guessed? I am Adolf Hitler.”
In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that I was slow to make the connection. His patch of a moustache, his accent and the screaming tirades all should have given me a clue. But at the time my mind was struggling, so I simply repeated, “Huh?!”
“Haff you not heard uff me, hein?”
“Ja, ja, I know. I am der rat. Iss zat not vot you are tinkink?”
It was, in fact.
“And you are vonderink vat I am doink in your kitchen?”
Well, that too, come to think on it.
“Ja, it iss extraordinary, iss it not, zat I who once held Europe in my fist - I who directed great armies mitt der wafe uff mein hand - am now brought so low?”
“Well,” I ventured, “I was thinking more along the lines that what was extraordinary was that I’m sitting here talking to a rat.”
“Ja,” he conceded, “zat too.”
“But you died…committed suicide.”
“Reincarnation!” He spat the word irritably, then calmed himself. “Der Buddhists had it right,” and with a shrug, “who knew?”
“You were reincarnated?”
“Ja, many times.”
“First ass der dung beetle.”
“Zen I vas der fly, but still in der shit, unnerstent?”
To which he flew into another sudden and violent rage.
“No, you do not unnerstent! It iss not possible! How can you fathom vat it iss to liff ein lifetime – sefferal lifetimes - in der shit?! I, who had liffed der life befittink mein genius, must now crawl over wet, slimy turds, unt swim in der poolse uff der excreta! Unt always always notink to eat but der shit! You cannot unnerstent because you are a dumkoff!”
I shuddered, “It must be terrible.”
“You don’t know der haff!”
“But…if that’s so, if you’ve been reincarnated as you say,” I stammered, “then how is it that you remember your past? I…I…mean, if all that’s true, then I must have been many things, too, and I have no recollection of other lives.”
“Zey hate me, zoes schweinhund! Ja, zey are jealous uff mein genius! Zey make me remember so zat I vill suffer, unt suffer, unt suffer!”
I pondered this for some time.
“I suppose that makes sense,” I nodded - I thought - sagely.
“Vatt do you know? You are idiotten!”
“Well, tens of millions of people died. Hundreds of millions suffered because of you…and your genius.”
“Ziss vass ein small price to pay so zat Germany could rule ze vorld! It vass required for der purity uff der Aryan race!”
“It would seem that they – whoever ‘they’ are – see things a bit differently.”
He slumped, crestfallen. “Ja, so it vould seem.”
“And you can speak,” I ventured, perhaps belatedly.
“Special dispensation,” he said, “but it vass not der kindness. Zey tink to make my life even more ze misery.”
“And how is that?”
He glared pure hatred. “Because I must explain myself to effery stupid dumkoff zat asks me zees same stupid questions.” He growled, pointedly at myself. “’Vy! Vy! Vy!’ Always der ‘vy’ until I am sick uff it, unt still zey ask. Unt zen ‘squash!’ zey stomp on me unt kill me, but always I come back ass somtink zat eats der shit! Zey cannot see mein genius!”
“Hard to see genius.” I mused, “when it’s wallowing around in a sewer.”
He favoured me with a cold, sub-zero stare, but offered no reply.
By now I was fully awake and in control of my senses, only to find my mind was in a logjam. What should I do with him? For all that he was a novelty, and perhaps the gateway to that last great unresearched scientific field that was the afterlife, I was forced to concede he was also the present embodiment of the greatest monster the world had ever known. I felt my grip tighten on the skewer. He was a sewer rat, and so too was he Adolf Hitler, responsible for so much suffering and death – one of which had been my own grandfather. If anything in this world deserved to die, it was this creature I had trapped in my pantry.
My face must have reflected my thoughts, for the rat eyed me with malevolent expectation.
“Ja, dumkoff,” he sneered, “do it. Zen I vill be free.”
That was when it struck me. He would come back as…what? A rat, such as it was, was decidedly an improvement over a dung beetle, or a fly, or any other lowly guise in which he’d thus far existed. Although there seemed still to be a long, long, road for Herr Hitler to travel before he achieved Nirvana – if such a thing existed - he seemed to be making some small progress along that line. Would it not be a kindness for a person to hurry him on his way?
I thought about this for quite some time and came to the conclusion that it just might be so.
I also decided that if anyone was going to show him a kindness, it would not be myself.
* * *
I stood outside the entrance to my home, watching as the small motorcade of shiny black Mercedes pulled into my driveway.
It had taken two years to convince them, two years of hidden cameras and microphones to gather proof, two years of urging a meticulously cleaned and groomed (but caged, oh yes, always caged) personality to speak freely about himself, but the representatives from the Israeli embassy were finally here.
The hardest part hadn’t been obtaining the evidence. It was all too easy to get one who was so vain and arrogant to fill up tape after tape with blood-chilling testimony. What had been difficult was – regardless of my proof - convincing anyone to believe it. It had taken an awful lot of determination on my part, but not for a moment had I ever entertained the idea of giving up, and at long last, my perseverance had paid off.
The first car pulled up and four tough looking young men, clad informally in shirts and blue jeans, got out, surveying first the tree line, and then myself, with professional suspicion, all the while murmuring secretively into their wrist microphones.
The second car pulled up behind the first. The driver and another Mossad agent got out and opened both back doors. On the side closest to me, a dapper young man in a well tailored suit emerged and came forward, offering his hand.
When I grasped it, he introduced himself.
“Bernie Saltsman, assistant director of military intelligence to the embassy attaché.”
From the back seat on the driver’s side, I saw a bent and wrinkled old man emerge, leaning heavily on the agent’s arm. When, eventually, they had made their way up the steps, Bernie gestured, “And this is Doctor Leibkowitz, head of paranormal research at the University of Tel Aviv.”
“An honour, sir,” I said offering my hand.
When the old man offered his in turn - stretching the loose sleeve of his ill-fitting crumpled old jacket - I couldn’t help noticing the faded blue column of numbers tattooed deep into the skin of his forearm.
With the civilities observed, I asked, “Would you like to see him?”
“Well young man,” the doctor said with a slight trace of humour, “I wouldn’t say no.”
As I led the way inside, I said, “He won’t be very talkative, I’m afraid. He likes to keep up appearances.”
“Oh, he’ll talk alright,” the old man gestured to a little black bag an agent was carrying,” if any of what you say is true.” It looked to be the sort of bag doctors used to carry back in the good old days when they still made house calls. “Sodium pentothal,” he explained.
The cage sat on a side table in the living room. Hitler stared at my guests with deep suspicion. The agent opened the black medical bag and brought out a pair of heavy rubber gloves and a syringe.
At this point Doctor Leibkowitz turned to me.
“Perhaps you could leave us alone with your little…guest?” Then, for some reason, he added, “Don’t worry, it’s kosher.”
I went outside and sat on a deck chair, smoking a cigarette. Within half an hour, the men reappeared, one agent carrying the doctor’s bag, another with Hitler’s cloth-draped cage. By the way he was gingerly holding it, I could tell the young man thought it contained something that was repulsive.
“Any luck?” I asked. But I thought I already knew the answer. I was pretty sure that a simple rat wouldn’t make that cold professional behave with such revulsion.
It was a hot July afternoon, and the doctor was mopping his forehead with a white linen handkerchief. He looked stricken with thought, but my question pulled him somewhat out of himself.
“What? Oh yes, if you can call it that.” There was an ancient bitterness in his voice.
“So, what now?”
He looked at me, but his eyes were glazed, like he wasn’t quite seeing the present.
“My family used to live in Warsaw, did you know that?”
There was no way I could have, but I knew enough to realize the question was rhetorical.
“As a young boy I used to play there with my friends. It was a good place, a happy place for a boy to grow up. My father sold shoes for a living and my mother…” he used the handkerchief to mop at one eye, “my mother was an angel. Do you believe that?”
I nodded. I believed it, but he didn’t need me to tell him.
“For sixty years they’ve been gone, every last one of them. My mother, my father – who always smelled of pipe tobacco – my older brother and sister, my friends: Benny,Yev and Joseph, and their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and….and…..” he was mopping both eyes now. “So many,” he sighed, “so…so…many!”
Then he looked at me, and I wondered if his eyes were as friendly as I might have expected them to be.
“For sixty years I tried to put it all behind me,” he said. “For sixty years I tried to dedicate the rest of my life to forgetting about the past and live solely for the future. Remembering only made me hate, it only twisted me up inside, turning me into something that wasn’t human. Yet I hadn’t been human for so long it was hard to find the right path. For me, it was a very long journey indeed.” He held me with haunted eyes. “Young man, you should be grateful you don’t know what I’m talking about.
“But when I heard that voice – the very minute I heard it – it all came flooding back, all those memories, all those people…all those ghosts! And I’ve never felt such hate, never felt such a desire for revenge! Do you believe that? Never!”
“Yes,” I said, and I wondered if I’d done such a good thing after all.
The old man stood there, trembling with sorrow. Forgotten, hot tears streamed down his face unchecked. I wondered if I should put a hand to his shoulder, or offer some other gesture of comfort, but felt unworthy. Day after day, he’d lived with his ghosts. It probably explained his work in the paranormal. By facing his past, he might well have reasoned he would be able to leave it behind him, and perhaps until now, that may have been true. But this literally coming face to face with the very architect of his misery must have been overwhelming. As much as I felt I had reason to hate, I now knew that mine was of no comparison to his.
Presently, with industrious use of his handkerchief, he was able to bring himself back to the present. Once more calm, he turned to me and said, “So, you ask, ‘what now?’ Well, I shall tell you.
“Herr Hitler,” he spat the word as though it were poison, “will be well taken care of. He will be given the best of medical care, exercised regularly, and kept alive for as long as possible. Of course there will be research, and who knows, maybe he will lead us to certain discoveries…perhaps even to where we might find the others who will come after this one is gone. And they too will be kept alive for as long as possible. If there is such a thing as a pathway to some sort of enlightenment, we will do all that we can to ensure it takes him as long as is humanly possible to get there.”
He pierced me with his fierce old man’s eyes. “And every single day, every last one of those reincarnated vermin…will…eat...a…Jew’s…shit!”
In silence, I escorted him down to where the agent stood waiting patiently by the Mercedes’ door.
I watched them go, clouds of dust roiling up behind their wheels. I thought of the old man’s words; of the peace he sought, and the revenge I’d condemned him to instead.
Was it worth it?
Like he said, I’d never really understand.
* * *
I was out of bed like a shot. I grabbed my hockey stick from behind the door and the kabob skewer from on top of the dresser. Then, with grim determination, I set off for the kitchen.
For all I knew, this time it was Joseph Stalin.
CW Lovatt – 12/02/09