Birth of a Rat
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
It was around eleven o’clock on a Thursday morning that they arrived at her home. They were all wearing identical blue uniforms. Thanks to these uniforms, they looked like experts. At least when it came to catching rats.
About thirty minutes before they rang the doorbell, she had gotten a call from her husband. He said people would soon be arriving at their home to get rid of the rat. He hung up after repeating three times that they were experts at rat catching. She knew that there were all kinds of experts in the world, but she hadn’t known that there were people who were experts at catching rats. Anyway, since they were experts, she hoped they would catch the rat quickly.
Flashlight, hammer, iron rod, iron skewer. Such were the tools they had brought with them to catch the rat. They looked complacent and relaxed, as if those tools alone would be sufficient. As she looked on, they doled out their tools amicably. Paik, whose head was so large it looked deformed, was the first to choose a tool, and without hesitation he picked up the hammer. Ku, who had a habit of constantly sniffing, chose the iron skewer. Stocky Kim, with protruding eyes, glanced at her before slyly picking up the iron rod. Park, rail thin and completely bald at the front of his head, grumbled.
“I always end up with the flashlight.”
“You know that you have to pay a hundred thousand won per rat, right?”
“A hundred thousand…won?”
She asked, looking confused.
“Everyone takes it that way.”
“What’s the problem? Some charge more.”
She wondered if a hundred thousand won per rat wasn’t a bit expensive, but she nodded. She had no choice but to believe what they said, that everyone charged that much and that some demanded even more. There might have been one rat, two or three rats, maybe even more than that. Still, as the rat had been glimpsed only once, there was a high possibility that there was just one. She informed them there was a baby in the house. She reckoned that they should know about the existence of the baby.
“A baby?” asked Kim, rolling his eyes.
“But the baby…is asleep…” she muttered, unable to tear her eyes away from the hammer in Paik’s hand. The iron head at the end of the handle was round, iron-colored, moderately worn and polished. Just imagining the scene if a rat was struck by it was horrible enough. The mere thought of a rat gave her goosebumps. In the whole world, rats were the most disgusting creatures she could think of.
They divided into teams of two and looked around the house. Paik and Park, Kim and Ku each became a pair. Paik and Park explored the veranda. There were clothes on the drying rack that had still not been brought in after three days out there, her underwear among them. It was embarrassing that her black bra was hanging from the rack like a bat, but she just had to let it be.
She went to the sofa, sat down and stared at the TV that had been on when they arrived. When they pressed the doorbell, she had been watching TV and, with purple thread, cross-stitching one of the grapes hanging abundantly from a grapevine. Filling in empty grapes was extremely boring, but it served to pass the time. When she sat alone on the sofa in broad daylight and filled in grapes, she felt as if there were so many empty grapes hanging in rows that she would grow old and die before she finished filling them all in.
It didn’t take them long to look around. Her house was an apartment of 66 square meters, its layout fairly typical. Two rooms, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a veranda. The living room and kitchen were separated by sliding doors fitted with opaque glass, put in by the people who had lived there before during remodeling.
They didn’t look into the bedroom where the baby was. The door to the bedroom was closed tight. The baby, only nine months old, was asleep in its cradle. She didn’t want it to wake up. Once it woke up, it was hard to get it back to sleep, and if the baby woke up it would interfere with catching the rat. Ku and Kim emerged from the bathroom and stood in front of her. Park and Paik also came and stood in front of her. Ku asked her, still snuffling.
“Okay, when was the first time you saw a rat?”
She felt awkward because it was not she, but her husband, who had seen it.
“Well, you see…”
It was three days before that her husband had first seen the rat. Late in the evening, after midnight, her husband had gone to the kitchen to drink some water and had seen it. According to her husband, when he entered the kitchen, the rat was sneaking over the gas range, its long, pink tail hanging down. The rat stared at him, then quickly disappeared behind the range. He was so surprised that he forgot that he had gone to the kitchen for a drink of water. After closing the sliding door of the kitchen tightly to keep the rat from coming out into the living room, he came back to the bedroom. Then, as she wearily tried to calm the fretting baby, he told her, “There’s a rat in the kitchen…!”
Then he lay down and fell asleep after muttering, “There’s a rat in the kitchen…How can there be a rat…”
That was it.
She changed the story so that it seemed as if the person who had seen the rat was herself, not her husband. When they had heard the whole story, they looked rather disappointed. Kim frowned and said, “Only one!”
Park chimed in.
“We’ll only know how many there are after we catch them.”
Ku sniffed to clear his runny nose.
She hoped that there would be only one rat, but at the same time she worried that if there was only one, they would be disappointed. They said it was a hundred thousand won per rat, so the more they caught, the better. But she tried to reassure herself by reflecting that even if there was only one rat, it wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t something she had to feel sorry about.
Until yesterday, she had been expecting her husband to get the rat, thinking that as soon as he left work he would come home and proudly catch it. But he had worked overtime for the last four days, and after that he and his staff went drinking until late before returning home. She didn’t want to blame her husband. She reflected that perhaps he found rats as disgusting as she did. After her husband saw the rat in the kitchen, she only entered it when she needed to prepare formula to feed the baby. As she boiled the water and mixed the formula, a chill ran down her spine at the thought that the rat might be hiding somewhere in the kitchen, watching her.
Before they set about catching the
rat, they held a kind of council of war. Ku spoke first.
Kim rolled his
eyeballs and kept nodding, while Paik grasped the hammer
tightly and listened
silently so that the veins on the back of his hand
swelled. Park pouted and glanced
at the TV. On the screen was a rerun of a popular drama
from three or four
“I wish we could catch a hundred rats.”
At Park’s words, she imagined a hundred rats swarming about the house, the sofa, the dining table, the bed and the cradle where the baby was asleep, teeming with rats. She didn’t like Park from the beginning. In fact, she didn’t like any of them very much from the start.
“How many is the most we’ve caught so far?”
“What, that’s all?”
“Three out of five were babies with no fur.”
“Let’s get them in one go!”
Paik raised the hammer into the air.
They rushed into the kitchen, talking loudly among themselves. They didn’t seem to be using poison or mousetraps. Clearly, they got rid of rats using nothing but the hammer, iron skewer and iron rod.
As soon as they rushed into the kitchen, she closed the sliding door, expecting them to catch the rat very soon.
She had just managed to regain her composure and pick up the embroidery when she put it down again, thinking that they might catch the rat at any moment and emerge from the kitchen. With the sliding door closed, she had no idea what they were doing in the kitchen, but clearly they were frantically trying to find the rat. She tried not to forget for a single moment that they were rat-catching experts sent by her husband.
Chaotic cries of “Huh,” “Hold it!” “There, there!” “Hey” and “Aigo” could be heard from behind the sliding door. She slowly turned her head toward the kitchen and looked at their forms as they loomed through the opaque glass of the door. The shapes glimpsed through the opaque glass were distorted and weird. Their movements, tangled together as if they were a troupe of performing artists on stage, were so extreme that they seemed to be hitting each other with the hammer, stabbing one another with the iron skewer and striking back and forth with the iron rod. In addition, the flashlight swirled like stage lighting, adding a dramatic effect.
It was about twenty minutes after they’d rushed into the kitchen that she heard a crash. It was the sound of the stainless steel pots that had been piled up one on top of another, collapsing and clashing. She recalled the set of German stainless steel pots in the sink cabinet, a set she had ordered without her husband’s knowledge from a home shopping site some time before. After the crashing sound had subsided, she heard them babbling with excitement.
Had they finally caught the rat? Hit it with the hammer? Stabbed it with the iron skewer? Or struck it with the iron rod? The sliding door opened and Park walked out hesitantly, pointing the flashlight at her. Taken aback, she jumped up from the sofa and the beam from the flashlight struck her left eye. As she raised a hand, Park turned it off.
“It’s urgent. I can’t control…”
Park slurred the ends of his words as he went trotting towards the door of the main bedroom.
“The bathroom is this way, not that way.”
She pointed at the bathroom door.
“Not that way, this way!”
She screamed just as Park grabbed the handle of the bedroom door.
As soon as Park entered the bathroom, she was embarrassed to hear the stream of urine striking the water in the toilet bowl. As she gazed disapprovingly toward the bathroom, she was shocked to find that the door wasn’t fully closed. The bathroom door opened almost at the same time as she heard the toilet being flushed.
Park came out and went to stand in front of the TV. He gazed at the screen and his lips curled.
“That’s the drama my wife’s crazy about, isn’t it?”
She was lost for words.
“She’s a pathetic woman who lounges around all day watching dramas on TV.”
Park spoke as if spitting out the words, then went striding toward the kitchen. She felt annoyed. While the baby was asleep, she had little to do other than watch drama reruns on TV, do cross-stitching, and fiddle with her smartphone.
They seemed not to have caught the rat yet. She heard them opening and closing the doors under the sink. She was worried that they were going to break the doors off. She felt inclined to go rushing into the kitchen to check if there were any broken doors, but had to be content with looking at the opaque glass.
Their image reflected in the glass of the sliding door was still tangled. The tangled shapes came together to form a single flailing shape.
A question suddenly struck her. How had the rat got in? Spiders, ants and cockroaches often appeared, but this was the first time a rat had shown up. She had never dreamed that there would be a rat in her house until one appeared and her husband saw it. It must have been the same for her husband. Moreover, her home was on the nineteenth floor of an apartment block that had only been built five years ago. Like most apartments, her home was as safe as an airtight container. She wondered if the rat might have entered through the front door, but it was tightly shut except when someone came in and out. The front door, with its automatic key, closed by itself, and once it was shut, locked itself. She wondered about the drains on the veranda and in the bathroom, but they were covered with stainless steel mesh.
As she racked her brains to figure out the path the rat might have taken in order to enter, she heard the sound of glass breaking.
She couldn’t stand it any longer and got up from the sofa. After hesitating for a moment, she approached the sliding door to the kitchen. She wanted to open it right away but held back. It wouldn’t do for her to open the door and set free the rat they had almost caught.
As she hesitated, the figure in the glass tore and split into several pieces.
The door slid open and the men emerged, waving the tools they were holding. She expected one of them to have a rat in his hand, but all they had were the flashlight, hammer, iron rod and skewer.
Their eyes were roving wildly after making such a commotion. Ku was sniffing and Park’s lips were curled.
The kitchen was a mess. The sink cabinet doors were wide open, pots and pans lay thrown about, potatoes and onions were rolling across the kitchen floor.
They chatted among themselves, ignoring
“It’s not in the kitchen.”
“There seem to be three rats.”
She couldn’t figure out how on earth they could be so convinced, but as they were rat-catching experts, they must have had a reason.
“Did it hide in the bathroom?”
“Could have. We caught our first one in the bathroom, didn’t we?”
“I got it with the hammer while it was gnawing the soap.”
They rushed toward the bathroom door with enough momentum to catch not a mere rat, but a bison or even a wild boar.
She peeked into the bathroom and saw them forming a circle around the toilet, as if there really were a rat hiding somewhere inside. The flashlight in Park’s hand was shining on the water in the toilet bowl, and the water was blue as if bruised. Ku stabbed at the back of the toilet with the iron skewer while Kim stirred the water in the tank with the iron rod. Paik was holding the hammer high in the air.
She hadn’t been able to clean the toilet that morning. Every morning, she sprinkled in some chlorine bleach and scrubbed it thoroughly, but today she had been preoccupied with the baby and had forgotten. She felt very worried in case there might be some kind of dirt on the toilet.
“How on earth can the rat be hiding in the toilet…?”
Her careful mutter earned her a rebuke from Park.
“You have no idea. We’ve caught two rats in a toilet.”
“That black rat was swimming about.”
Kim stirred the water in the toilet with the iron rod.
After ten minutes spent checking the toilet, what they found was unfortunately not a rat, but a crack.
“Is it cracked?”
Park fussed as excitedly as if they had found a rat.
They bent over with their rear ends sticking out awkwardly while they examined the crack as if they had come to replace the toilet, not to catch rats.
They came out of the bathroom after examining the sink, bathtub, chest of drawers and baskets holding bath supplies.
She glanced at them, then went into the bathroom, closed the door and checked the toilet. It was only after she had screwed up both eyes that she was able to find the crack on the side of the water tank. Actually, it was more of a scratch than a crack.
She felt so intensely resentful of her husband, who had sent them without consulting her in the least, that she even began to reckon that she’d rather have rats in the house than them. The rats hid in secret, but these people moved around the house as a group.
“I’d rather have rats! Rats!”
She grumbled, then realized that they were men, and quickly shut up. They were men with tools in their hands that could in an instant turn into terrifying, lethal weapons.
Already it was one in the afternoon. It had been around eleven in the morning when they reached her home. Contrary to her expectations, far from catching any rats, they had messed up the house.
Paik struck the living room wall with the hammer. As a result of the shock, the frame hanging on the wall tilted by fifteen degrees. In the frame was their first family photo, taken on the hundredth day after the baby was born. Her baby was wearing a bear-face hat and sitting on her husband’s lap, smiling. Her husband was also smiling with his mouth wide open. She was looking at her husband and baby with great satisfaction.
Paik again struck the living room wall with the hammer, and the frame tilted another fifteen degrees. In the photo, which was now tilted at about thirty degrees, her husband had a startled look. Her baby was frowning as if about to burst into tears at any moment. And she was glancing at her husband and baby as if she were very annoyed.
“If that guy’s hungry, he can’t work,” Ku explained, so she felt obliged to order jajangmyeon, jjamppong and fried dumplings. Paik finished off a bowl of jajangmyeon in three or four mouthfuls. Kim picked up the greasy fried dumplings with his hand and shoved them into his mouth. Instead of eating his jjamppong, Park picked up the remote control and flipped through the TV channels.
Then they went out together onto the veranda, carrying the paper cups of instant coffee she had prepared. They giggled as they looked down from the nineteenth floor.
She watched Ku throw a still-burning cigarette butt into the air, and reflected that she might do better to send them away immediately, seeing as how they had not caught any rats. There must be a lot of other expert rat catchers.
When they returned to the living
room, they wandered around, yawning and stretching as if
they were drowsy. She
too was feeling sleepy.
She dozed off without realizing it, then woke, startled. She looked at them with terrified eyes, as they stood surrounding her. They were pointing the hammer, the iron rod and the iron skewer at her, as if she were the rat they were looking for.
“Did you really see a rat?” Ku asked her.
“A rat, a rat!” Kim pressed her.
Even she could hear that her voice was trembling.
“Did you really see it?”
Kim pushed the iron rod under her chin.
“I did…I saw it.”
They drew closer, step by step, and surrounded her.
By the time she finally managed to spit out the words, they had her completely surrounded.
As she listened to the sound of Paik grinding his molars, she had the impression that she had become a rat – the rat her husband had seen in the kitchen three days before. Another moment and she clapped a hand over her mouth, which was about to let loose a scream.
Thinking that she had to get away from them somehow, she jumped up onto the sofa. The hammer was glistening just above her forehead. She wrapped her hands around her head and yelled, forgetting that her baby was sleeping peacefully in the bedroom.
When she took her arms away from her head and quietly looked up, they were talking among themselves.
“She said she really saw a rat.”
“If she said that, she must have seen it, right?”
“I guess it’s hiding behind the sofa.”
The instant Kim spoke, they rushed to the sofa and pushed it away from the wall. Immediately, the disposable diapers piled up on the back of the sofa fell to the floor. They trampled roughly on the diapers, searching behind the sofa, but there was no rat.
Everyone stopped moving at Ku’s word.
“What’s that noise?”
She listened with them to the sound coming from somewhere in the house. She longed for it to be the sound of a rat, but it wasn’t. It was a sound made by her baby.
“The baby…must have woken up…” she
muttered, glancing at them. She hoped
the baby might fall asleep again, but instead it cried
even louder, at the top
of its voice.
“It’s really loud!” Paik complained.
She quickly got off the sofa and ran into the bedroom. The baby was waving its arms and legs in the cradle, its face turned blue. She held out her arms and picked up the baby. Holding the baby, she went back into the living room, where they surrounded her as if they had been waiting. They stared at the baby pressing its face against her breast. With a confused expression, the baby stared at them in amazement, one by one. Park spoke to Paik.
“It looks just like you! Look at its thick lips.”
“What?” said Kim, “It looks just like you!”
Ku sniffed in Kim’s face.
“In my opinion it looks like you. That nose the size of a fist.”
Even though she didn’t think it looked like any of them, they kept insisting that the baby looked like them. She was reflecting that the baby couldn’t look like them, any of them. It really was impossible.
“Who among the four of us do you think it resembles most?”
She opened her eyes wide and looked at Ku.
“Who among the four of us do you think the baby looks most like?”
She stared seriously with fresh eyes at the baby’s face, which she normally considered to be the spitting image of her husband’s. After carefully studying the baby’s eyes, nose and mouth, she raised her head to examine their faces one after another. It turned out that the baby looked like Paik, Ku, Kim and even Park. It resembled all of them so equally that she couldn’t really say it resembled any one of them.
“I hate babies,” Paik complained.
“It’s pretty chubby,” Park said
The baby was certainly plump. Its bulging thighs were thicker than her forearms.
“It’s as fat as a piglet.”
Kim suddenly took the baby from her. He put the baby, who was only nine months old, on his shoulder, and spun around on the spot. Amazed, the baby laughed with eyes open wide. He made as if to throw the baby up into the air, and each time she couldn’t help screaming inside.
Next, the baby was handed from Kim to Ku to Park. As Park tried to hand him the baby, Paik complained with his arms folded.
“I hate babies. I hate any baby!”
Just then, the phone rang. She picked up the handset as if it were her savior’s hand. She hoped it was her husband, but it was the water purifier meter reader. The meter reader informed her that he would visit to check the water purifier at eleven on Saturday morning, then hung up. He visited once a month to change the filter in the water purifier, and went away after promoting products such as bidets and water softeners. As soon as she finished talking to the meter reader, she called her husband’s cell phone.
The baby was still nestling in Park’s arms. He was kneading the baby’s limbs as if it were a rubber doll. The baby had adopted a strange expression that she had never seen since it was born, and perhaps because of that expression, it looked like each of them. Yet there was no reason why the baby should resemble any of them. They were simply people her husband had sent to get rid of the rat. Her husband didn’t answer the phone, probably busy with some kind of important conference or meeting.
“Perhaps it’s hiding in there?”
As soon as Ku spoke, they dumped the baby on the sofa and rushed towards the small room. She ran to the sofa and quickly picked up the baby.
They opened the door of the small room and went running in. The small room was full of junk.
One of them shouted and Paik struck the floor with the hammer. The hammering was so intense that she was worried about them cracking the floor. As she hugged the baby tightly and looked on desperately at Paik’s insane hammering, she shook her head, the image of a tattered, bloody rat’s body spontaneously arising in her mind.
However, it wasn’t a bloody rat that lay trembling on the tattered, torn floor-covering. It was a plastic mechanical duck. The duck had lost its head and one leg, making it an ugly sight. Fragments from the duck’s body lay scattered about.
“But it looked just like a rat…”
Paik’s disheartened voice came from behind her. At first glance, the duck really did look like a rat.
She picked up the duck and started to wind up the spring. She wound it fully and when she let go, the clockwork turned and the duck kicked with one crushed leg. The baby waved its arms, enjoying the sight, then shook one leg as if imitating the duck. Knowing that the duck was broken was going to make her husband very sad. She recalled how happy her husband looked as he wound up the duck then placed it on the baby’s chubby thigh. As the duck took a few tottering steps before falling over, the baby would get excited and shake its butt.
But she was soon obliged to realize that the duck wasn’t the problem.
Looking at the air purifier they had wrecked in the blink of an eye, she suspected that they might not be real rat catchers. The tools in their hands were so absurd and rudimentary. It seemed like buying some sticky boards and putting them here and there would rather be an easier way to catch a rat.
She had bought the air purifier a month before through TV home shopping, on a ten-month interest-free installment plan. She was furious at the thought that she would have to pay installments for the broken air purifier for the next nine months.
She felt desperately inclined to call the police and have them kicked out of the house. As she picked up the phone to do so, the flashlight shone on her.
“It seems you have to phone someone urgently?”
“If she wants to call someone in a hurry, she should do it!”
She dialed her husband’s cell phone number with trembling fingers. She got the number wrong and had to dial again. The call went through, but her husband still didn’t answer the phone.
“My husband isn’t answering the phone…Catching the rat is proving difficult...I wanted to tell him…”
“We’ll catch it soon, so hold back on the worrying!”
“Where the hell can the rat be hiding?”
Desperately eager to catch the rat,
they removed all the shoes from the
shoe closet. As she looked around the messed up house,
she recalled the not insignificant
loan she had taken out from the bank in order to set up
the home. A not insignificant
monthly interest payment was being automatically
deducted from her account.
Suddenly, the thought that there might not be any rats flashed through her mind like lightning – a foreboding that there might not be a single rat in the house.
The night he saw the rat, her husband had been very drunk. Since no droppings had been discovered anywhere in the house, she wondered if her husband had been so drunk that he had imagined the rat. It was three days before that her husband had seen it, so it was also possible that the rat had gone on to another house in the meantime.
She put the baby down on the living room floor, wound up the duck as far as she could and placed it within reach of the baby.
Then she quietly went into the kitchen, closed the sliding door and looked behind the stove. She could see ramen crumbs and dried kimchi slices, but no droppings. A blackish, pellet-like thing struck her gaze as she looked at the floor under the stove. She desperately hoped it would be droppings, but unfortunately not. It was just a grain of rice that had rotted and dried out.
When she came out of the kitchen with shoulders drooping, they were scouring her bedroom cabinets. Already, clothes and blankets had been pulled out and spread across the floor. She wanted to get them out of the house, even if it meant pressing a hundred-thousand won check into each of their hands, as if they had each caught a rat.
After they had ransacked the bedroom without finding the rat, they rushed back into the living room.
Her voice trembled violently and she swallowed once. She didn’t have the courage to tell them that there might not be a rat anywhere in the house.
“Will it be caught soon…?”
The baby, who had been happily playing with the wrecked duck, began to fret. She picked up the baby and went into the bedroom.
The cradle, the one thing they had not touched, looked more cozy and serene than ever. If only she could, she longed to lie down in the cradle together with the baby and fall asleep without a care in the world.
“It’s all because of the rat your dad said he saw. That rat!” she said after lying the baby down in the cradle. The baby’s mouth was hanging wide open, a drop of saliva the size of an acorn dribbling from it. Just as the saliva bubble burst, the baby spat out a single word. To her ears, it definitely sounded like “rat.”
The baby’s mouth gaped again, and an even larger drop of saliva than before formed. The swelling saliva bubble burst, and again the baby spat out a single word.
“Rat? Did you say rat?”
“Rat rat rat...”
Now that the baby had opened its mouth, it didn’t seem to stop. She had never imagined that the first word her baby would say would be “rat,” and not “mom” or “dad.” She should have been sad, but she couldn’t afford the feeling.
She put the broken duck on the baby’s stomach. One leg of the duck, which she had wound up tightly, trembled wildly.
She waited for the baby to fall asleep, then moved away from the cradle. As she left the bedroom, she shut the door tightly. She went to the sofa, picked up the embroidery which had been thrown onto the floor, and began filling in the grapes. One grape, another grape, another grape…
“I think I just heard a rat…”
“I think it came from that room?”
Ku picked up the iron skewer and pointed at the bedroom door. Ku nodded towards Kim, Paik and Park. They crept, with Ku in the lead, toward the door of the bedroom, which she had closed tightly.
They quickly surrounded the cradle where the baby was asleep, before she had time to stop them. Only then did she reflect that the sound of a rat they thought they had heard might be the sound of the baby in the cradle. At that moment, the silver cross-stitch needle in her hand trembled like a fisherman’s float.
She was uncertain whether to go on filling in the almost-finished grape or whether she should go running into the bedroom and stop them. To the point that she forgot they were expert rat catchers her husband had sent.