I’ve heard the rat story from a Yugoslavian refugee long before that Bond movie, but without specifics just took me a while, a long while, to make it into a short story.
Three-hour drive from the city on my old and reliable Astra Vauxhall estate and here I am. It is warm out here. I am not sure if it is the fresh cool air on a bright day that agrees with me or if it is because I will see grandpa, probably both. It has been few years. One turn to the right into a small driveway and I will be there.
Grandpa is taller that average, not just in height. The old man is so full of life, it is a crime of nature that people like that should age. Then again, some people live so much that their minds can’t hold it all in for a long period of time. Sometimes his green eyes turn a lighter colour, almost yellow, just like in a switch board or a radio that, at a push of a button, goes from FM to AM band.
I stop the car. Taking all in, my childhood memories come back in a flash and it is difficult to stay grounded, everything look as I remember it, like I just stepped in a still picture, little by little the picture and the surroundings merge and I am me but also a five-year-old. No matter how many times I come here, I am always a five-year-old just like the first time I remember stepping in on this garden. The immediate garden is full of wildflowers and as soon as I see it, for some reason I think about the back garden which is not on sight: a carefully kept herb garden, planted in such a way that it feels like a formal garden. Like a master gardener, its maker had planted this edible wonder with symmetry and interweaving textures, but instead of roses this Eden has architectural plants like giant fennels, angelicas, rosemaries and soul repairing scents at the whim of the breeze. The house is a two-storey house, not grand but spacious enough to make you feel it is, not new but in good condition, solid. The oak door is in front of me, my city boy side urges me to knock but the urge disappears almost immediately, I know Grandpa doesn’t lock and I push the door and step in. It is almost 10 in the morning and the smell of bacon frying guides me to the kitchen, brunch is being prepared.
I pass the soberly decorated walls of the living room almost without noticing anything, I dump my leather bag full of clothes on the floor in the middle of the room and almost run to the kitchen, I am a hungry five-year-old.
I know Grandpa is expecting me or I wouldn’t dare… – Deda! – I almost shout happily.
Nikola!! My boy, look at you! All grown up, and in the service, tough guy! – He shouts.
Like my Grandpa Goiko. – He hugs me, and I know two things: he loves me, and he still doesn’t know how strong he is. Oak doesn’t get softer with age.
Oh Boze! You look just like my brother… he was a good man. – he said and his green eyes, that normally makes him look fierce, soften.
Good uncle Stanko, who saved you from being taken in Croatia. – I say as I recall. And he paid for it. But you know the story already. I tried to honour my older brother always. – He said sadly, trying not to slip into nostalgy…too late.
And you have, I am sure he was proud of you just like I am proud of being your grandson. – When I say that, I mean it. I have heard about my likeness to uncle Stanko before and nostalgy pulls Grandpa like quicksand. I know what follows, I know all his stories but still… I want to hear them.
We spend all day talking of military training, tactics and the usual pranks among the boys. All day, man-talk, eat and drink. Grandpa talks to me about how people who he has known all his life, girls who have flirted with him, neighbours, friends all turned on him treated him like a stranger or worse… they used to know him now he is the bad kind of known, from one day to another upon the change of politics in Croatia. Ethnically Serbs, brothers who spoke the same language, were suddenly enemies. ‘Only a fool builds his house on the road’- he said, referring to an old saying about the country being, geographically, on the way of foreign ambitions. He talked about coming to England as a refugee, starting from less than zero: ‘People who has roots, family, connections who have nothing else, start a new life from ten. People with no money and no connections start from zero. People with nothing and a reputation levelled down by propaganda for decades, start from minus zero. But I am grateful for my life after that, for my wife, for my child and you.’
We were sitting on benches in the garden and a gentle breeze had carried the scent of peppermint to my face, there was a nice fire in the pitch, and we could see the soothing night in a gentle light. I can’t think of a better place to be. Suddenly a big rat runs across at the edge of a garden. Grandpa caught my shocked face. ‘That’s not big’- he said, and his eyes reflected the colour of the fire. – ‘During the war, we had pest problem in a base. the Quartermaster was not new to battle, but he had been losing all his battles against the rodent adversary. Even in small numbers, rats are a threat, they carry diseases, spoil the stored food and well… you get the picture. They were multiplying and getting bolder. After a few died they weren’t touching the traps anymore. They adapted fast. It was like they had their own training camp.
‘The Quartermaster Sergeant and his superiors decided to hold a competition, the leaflet read: A promotion will be awarded to whom comes up with an effective way to get rid the infestation of rodents in the area. It looked like an easy upgrade, everybody wanted to get ahead easy. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as everyone thought. Private ‘Machiavelli’ came in and laid his plan out to the committee, everyone had heard of him. If you would’ve seen the faces in the meeting you’ve thought that the drinks that they have been served consisted of pure lime juice. ‘Machiavelli’, though young, had a solid reputation for being a problem solver, so they agreed to try his method. The whole thing consisted in having a metal barrel with a lead, put ten rats in and keep the lead on for a few weeks, once the rats were starving, they started to fight, the weaker rats went down first serving as food for the stronger ones. When there was only one left, they kept the rat hungry and they introduced a new rat to the barrel once a week. The new addition always fell prey to the desperate, ruthless and experienced survivor. After few months of hearing the chilling squeaks and the scratches on the metal barrel, the rat came to expect its meal fresh and warm. The next step was to test the success of the experiment by putting the rat in a still enclosed but larger area and offer a wider choice in the menu. There was smoked pork, some grains and a companion rat. Guess what?! Yep, ‘Machiavelli’ won that promotion, our pet was our very own hunter and exterminator.’
The fire is dying in the pit, but Grandpa’s eyes are still like flames, I have never seen him like this. I remember my mother talking to him when I was younger, and I tell him her magic words. – Don’t go away, please. Stay with me.
Where was I? – he says, clearing his throat.
The making of a pet. – I say with a half-smile, I don’t like rats at the best of times.
Pet? This was not a tame thing, sometimes I wondered if when it had enough of eating its kind it would start eating us… I’ve had a couple of bad dreams about it. Luckily, there were no incidents among the human population. – He says that with a present fear, slowing the movement of his hands and tightening his muscles.
Ugh, I hadn’t thought about that, the thought of a cannibal rat was unpleasant enough. Imagine…’ – Best not, I think.
Well, there were plenty of bodies left for scavengers when there was action. No one can be sure…just like the bombs, they would not discriminate… ally or enemy.’ -his face was sombre.
Thanks, Deda, I’ll be looking out for mutant flesh-eating rats from now on.’ I say, trying to lighten the mood. But I can’t help thinking that I haven’t seen any real action yet, when I do, it will make me or break me. I am not my grandfather. What if I am softwood? What if can’t be a ‘Machiavelli’? If I can’t solve problems ruthlessly and efficiently, how will I inspire my men to follow me? Maybe I am not like Grandpa… Like a baby after drinking warm milk, he has fallen to sleep after that last beer. The bench is strong and long enough to serve as his bed for a bit.
After putting a pillow under his, once abundantly populated with strong dark hair, now bold head, I put a light cover over his body mainly to stop midges from annoying him, I throw some logs in the pit and walk around the garden. There are no fences, so the garden appears to merge with the wild forest at some point. I walk till I reach a handmade pergola, it’s like a portal to another world, a wild world. The arch is beautifully made, the two sides are closed, a big picture in one of them. In my hurry to meet Grandpa and my brunch earlier, I hadn’t noticed the big space left in the living room, my grandma’s picture wasn’t there anymore. I knew Grandpa loved Grandma very much, but even when I suspected his deep sadness, I didn’t suspect how deep it was, it wasn’t so long ago when we lost her. How do we measure a black hole in space? I turn back to look at him and reconciliate my new discovery with even more admiration. Usually one admires flowers for their beauty, but it is more difficult to see a strong, old oak tree and be inspired with tenderness…usually. As I look at Grandpa, I can see his body shaking, I run to him and he nearly jumped at me with his eyes wide open. He is not asleep, he is not awake. His sweat is cold contrasting with the warm night air.
Rats! – He screams with all his body.
It was a dream, Deda, only a dream…’ – I say trying to calm him down.
I wish! Rats! That’s all we are to them! The war makers… – I can tell he is fully awake now, but his eyes are still reflecting the flames even if now there is only embers. Rats! – he continues – And we are in a barrel! To eat our own, to survive and to hunt for them…Rats I tell you! Rats, rats, rats… Pomaze Bog!’ – his voice goes lower but not quieter.
You are not like a rat! Uncle Stanko wasn’t like a rat. We are not like rats. Maybe sometimes…but most of the time we are like ants. – Grandpa looks at me, confused but here, fully back to the present. If he expected an answer that wasn’t it – If you think about it, we are stronger than we look, we work together when we need to achieve something, each individual is good at something and use their gift, together with others, to build a society, we find solutions to problems. Ants grow their own fungus to make their food. They have a queen. – without thinking I turn to the temple of nature that is the herb garden he meticulously keeps and to the pergola, the temple to the sovereign of his heart, I look at the golden ring on his finger. I put more logs in the pit. Grandpa’s eyes, they are now like the canvas of chlrophyll illuminated by the lights that surrounds us. He gets up and look around.
Ants, huh? – he says, still sad and half amused, but not shaken anymore – so what happen to the others when the queen dies? – He says and looks at me like he knows the unsaid.
I have no thoughts, but I reach for my heart. – They die too. – I say – But the only thing that ants aren’t capable of, that I can think of, is keeping queens in their hearts and honour them by keeping their kingdom alive. – I think of my, also gone, mother when I say that. Grandpa looks around the edible garden ‘beautiful and practical’ Grandma used to say, while she indulged herself in her favourite hobby: gardening.
Next day, as usual, Grandpa is awake at the break of dawn. I can smell the sweet black coffee (I know how he drinks it). I take it to him where he is trimming some creeping thyme, grown instead of grass, and trying to expand its beautiful aromatic stems on the path. He finds an ant and puts her in the flower bed gently where she gets lost within the bright orange of the nasturtiums. I have resolved to stay for as long as I can, then back to the barracks to finish my training as a soldier.
When it’s time to go back. Grandpa’s emerald eyes shine brighter in the morning; his eyes are always the easier way to tell how he feels. After I have said my goodbyes and promised to comeback soon to visit, Grandpa stays by the strong, oak door that keeps the house safe (when it’s locked), to see me off, and I can’t help thinking ‘the trees grow around their heart.’ Then I think about that article I read about ants, long time ago: ‘…Matabele ants carry their wounded home…Back in the nest, ants take turns caring for their injured comrades, gently holding the hurt limb in place with their mandibles and front legs while intensely “licking” the wound for up to four minutes at a time…’ Ants care for their wounded. The ant hill that is the Army has counsellors, medics…
Virginia Munoz ©2019