Illustration by Kate Greenway

King Rat

by Karen Joy Fowler

One day when I was in the first grade, Scott Arnold told me he was going to wash my face with snow on my way home from school. By playground rules he couldn't hit a girl, but there was nothing to prevent him from chasing me for blocks, knocking me over and sitting on me while stuffing ice down my neck, and this was what he had planned to do. I forget why.

I spent the day with the taste of dread in my mouth. Scott Arnold was a lot bigger than I was. So was everybody else. I was the smallest girl in my first grade class and smaller than most of the kindergartners too. So I decided not to go home at all. Instead I would surprise my father with a visit to his office.

My school was about halfway between my home and the university where my father worked. I left by the back door. There was snow in the gutters and the yards, but the sidewalks were clear, the walking easy. The university was only five blocks away, and a helpful adult took me across one busy street. I found the psychology building with no trouble; I'd been there many times with my dad.

The ornate entrance door was too heavy for me. I had to sit on the cold steps until someone else opened it and let me slip inside. If I'd been with my father, we would have taken the elevator to his office on the fourth floor. He might have remembered to lift me up so that I could be the one to press the fourth floor button. If no one lifted me, I couldn't reach it.

I took the stairs instead. I didn't know it took two flights to one floor; I counted carefully but exited too early. There was nothing to tip me off to this. The halls of the first and the second and the third floors looked exactly liked those of the fourth: green paint on the walls, flyers, a drinking fountain, rows of wooden doors on both sides.

I knocked on what I believed was my father's office, and a man I didn't know opened it. Apparently he thought I'd interrupted him as a prank. "You shouldn't be wandering around here," he said angrily. "I've half a mind to call the police." The man banged the door shut, and the sharp noise combined with my embarrassment made me cry. I was dressed for snow, and so was getting uncomfortably hot.

I retreated to the stairwell where I sat awhile, crying and thinking. In the lobby of the entryway a giant globe was set into the floor. I loved to spin it, close my eyes, and put my finger down on Asia or Ecuador, or the painted oceans. I thought perhaps I could go back to the entrance, find the globe again, start all over. I couldn't imagine where I'd made my mistake, but I thought I could manage not to repeat it. I'd been ot my father's office so many times.

But I could not stop crying, and this humiliated me more than anything. Only babies cried, Scott Arnold said, whenever he'd made me do so. I did my best not to let anyone see me, waited until the silence in the stairwell persuaded me it was empty before I went back down.

I decided to go to the basement where the animal lab was. My father might be there or one of his students, someone I knew. I took the stairs as far down as they went and opened the door.

The light was different in the basement — no windows — and the smell was different, too. Fur and feces and disinfectant. I'd been there dozens of times and I knew to skirt the monkeys' cages. I knew they would rattle the bars, show me their teeth, howl, and if I came close enough, they would reach through to grab me. Monkeys were strong for all they were so small. They would bite.

Behind the monkeys were the rats. Their cages were stacked one on the next, so many of them they formed aisles like in a grocery store.

There was never more than a single rat in a single cage. They shredded the newspaper lining and made themselves damp, small–confetti nests. When I passed they came out of these nests to look at me, their paws wrapped over the bars, their noses ticking busily from side to side. These were hooded rats with black faces and tiny, nibbling teeth. I felt that their eyes were sympathetic. I felt that they were worried to see me there, lost without my father, and this concern was a comfort to me.

At the end of one of the aisles I found a man I didn't know. He was tall and blond, with pale blue eyes. He knelt and shook my hand so my empty mitten, tied to my sleeve, bounced about in the air. "I am a stranger here," he said. He pronounced the vowels oddly. "Newly arrived. So I don't know everyone the way I should. My name is Vidkun Thrane." A large hooded rat climbed out of his shirt pocket. It looked at me with the same worried eyes the caged rats had shown. "I am not entirely without friends," the blond man said. "Here is King Rat, come to make your acquaintance."

Because of his eyes, I told King Rat my father's name. We all took the elevator up to the fourth floor together.

My rescuer was a Norwegian psychologist who'd just come to work in the United States with men like my father, studying theories of learning by running rats through mazes. In Oslo, Vidkun had a wife and a son who was just the age of my older brother. My father was very glad to see him. Me, he was less glad to see.

I cared too much about my dignity to mention Scott Arnold. The door I had knocked on earlier was the office of the department chair, a man who, my father said, already had it in for him. I was told never to come as a surprise to see him again. Vidkun was told to come to supper.

Vidkun visited us several times during his residency, and even came to our Christmas dinner since his own family was so far away. He gave me a book, Castles and Dragons, A Collection of Fairy Tales from Many Lands. I don't know how he chose it. Perhaps the clerk recommended it. Perhaps his son has liked it.

However he found it, it turned out to be the perfect book for me. I read it over and over. It satisfied me in a way no other book ever has, grew up with me the way a good book does. These, then, are the two men I credit with making me a writer. First my father, a stimulus/response psychologist who believed in reinforcement in the lab, but whose parenting ran instead to parables and medicinal doses of Aesop's fables.

Second, a man I hardly knew, a stranger from very far away, who showed me his home on the large, spinning globe, and one Christmas brought me the book I wanted above all others to read. I have so few other memories of Vidkun. A soft voice and a gentle manner. The worried eyes of King Rat looking out from his pocket. The unfortunate same first name, my father told me later, as the famous Norwegian traitor. That can't have been easy growing up, I remember my father saying.



Illustration by Kate Greenway

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