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Rats of Autun, 1522 photo

The rats have eaten the grain again, and the men need a new solution. We’ve already exhausted the usual methods of dealing with rats: traps, prayers, and cats. Our town has many cats, but they simply aren’t working fast enough. Last year, Sébastian the butcher explained with a great deal of drawing in dirt that the rats bred much faster than the cats, and thus far outnumbered them. The men could trust Sébastian, because as a butcher he knew a lot about animals. In fact, he took an unusual interest in his work, and had dissected the bodies of cats and rats in order to study their innards. He told the men that he had noticed some interesting contrasts in the sexual organs of these two creatures, but what these differences were, and how they might affect their respective reproductive capabilities, Sébastian seemed unwilling to say.

Fortunately, Sébastian had heard that some twenty miles away, in a town where his sister had settled a few years before, the cats were renowned for breeding fast and having unusually large litters. Sébastian collected money from some business-owners in town, my father included —these special cats demanded a high price—borrowed a mule, and rode off to buy the cats. He returned with two kittens—male and female—in a barley sack. Having made the investment, everyone was anxious to see the results, but first they had to wait for the kittens to grow, and then the cats to mate, and the litter at last numbered only three.

Now, the rats have gotten into the barley fields just before spring harvest and have eaten the grain and destroyed the plants.

The men have called an emergency meeting. They’re sitting in our home, among my father’s rolls of cloth. I’m unhappy about the timing, because I’d just gotten up the nerve to tell my father about a significant problem of my own tonight. Now I have to wait. I sit in the room at the back, where a missing board lets me watch and hear the men. They’re trying to determine how they might help Autun, our city, survive without its barley crop. But this is a difficult question, so their talk keeps drifting back to the rats: how they might be killed, how they might be punished.

“If I could get my hands on a rat right now,” Sébastian says, and then, as if on cue, there’s a small rustle in a corner of the room, and everyone falls silent. Sébastian starts up, but my father stops him with a hand to his sleeve.

“Let’s focus,” my father says. “We need a new way of dealing with vermin.”

“A trial,” says Édouard, the furniture maker. He says it high and sudden, and they all turn to look at him, a skinny bearded man, surprisingly slight, I’ve always thought, for someone who spends his days hewing chairs and tables out of heavy wood. “A court trial.”

“But who,” my father says, “do you plan to try? Who’s at fault?”

“The rats. The rats of course.”

The men grumble. “The point of a trial,” Sébastian says, “is to get permission to kill someone. We don’t need permission to kill rats.”

“It sounds odd,” Édouard says, speaking quickly now, “but I’ve heard such things have been done before. For example, many years ago at Savigny-sur-Etang, but with a pig.”

“A pig!” Sébastian says. “We can’t compare pigs and rats.”

 “A sow killed and ate someone’s baby—a gruesome crime—and the animal was brought to trial and found guilty of infanticide. They hanged it, out where everyone could see. They haven’t had a similar incident since.”

“Probably,” my father says, “because people learned to keep their babies out of the pig pen.”

“But pigs,” Sébastian says. “I can imagine pigs learning from such a display. Pigs are highly intelligent.”

“That’s true,” says Pierre, the miller, who’s especially nervous with the current grain situation. “My father used to have a pig that could unbolt its own pen.”

“I’ve examined the brains of pigs several times,” Sébastian says. “Remarkable animals.”

“We always wondered, how does Greta get out of her pen, and then one day my sister saw her working at the latch with a stick.”

“Remarkable animals.”

“Still,” Édouard says. “I don’t see why a similar thing couldn’t work with our rats.”

They argue for a quarter hour or so, until my father proposes that it wouldn’t hurt to call in the priest. On this, there’s mixed opinion. Father Michel has been our priest for only a year and a half, and being young and good-looking, is nothing like the other priests we’ve had. People don’t know what to make of him. We don’t know where he came from—when I’ve asked, he’s said only, “Elsewhere in Burgundy. Farther north.” But he’s clever, well educated, and seems a good person to consult on legal matters. “Hélène,” calls my father to me, “Go fetch Father Michel, tell him we need some advice.”

I’m slow to gather up my cloak, not particularly wanting to see Father Michel tonight. The men return to the subject of how the rats will be punished. At first, they imagine a mass hanging, but by the time I walk out the door, they’ve moved on to drawing and quartering.

The night air is cold, but I imagine I feel the warmer days ahead. “Good evening, Hélène,” says the blind beggar, who knows the sound of my step. I walk with a bit of a limp, due to the turned foot I was born with. The moon is out and reflects off puddles in the street. It rained earlier today. There’s a freshness to the air and the smell of shit isn’t so strong as usual. Passing the old oak tree in the square, I imagine it hung with hundreds, thousands of rats, rats in tiny little nooses. Little rat bodies blowing in the breeze, bumping against each other and against tree branches. Rats over doorways, rats hung round the barley fields and the perimeter of town as a warning.

When Father Michel answers the door he takes my hand and pulls me inside. “The men,” I start to say.

He pulls me to him, runs his hands up my back.

“The men are meeting. They want to see you.”

He presses his lips against my neck, starts fiddling with the lacing of my smock, but I push him away. “Not tonight.”

Father Michel follows behind me, and now, in view of the town’s windows, we walk like two strangers. I feel a warm blush creep up the back of my neck. His strong stride and my uneven one echo on the streets.

Inside, I slip to the back room, my face so red I’m afraid the men will know something’s up, but they’re already talking to Father Michel about the trial, about the pigs and rats and how they might proceed. There’s a pause while Father Michel thinks.

“Yes,” he says at last. “I’ve heard of these things before.”

Another pause.

“Of course,” he says, “there’s an issue of domestication. The pig you spoke of, that was a domestic animal, but rats are wild.”

“You mean wild animals can’t be tried––”

Édouard stops short, and there’s a long pause, and though I can’t see from the back room, I know that Father Michel is making his signature gesture, holding one finger up in the air while closing his eyes. He does this often during mass, creating an air of suspense, so that even those who understand none of the Latin sit at the edge of their seats.

“It’s simply a different procedure,” Father Michel says. “You couldn’t try these rats in an ordinary criminal court. Wild beasts are under jurisdiction of the church.”

“And the church––”

“Could excommunicate the rats, if they’re found guilty.”

Among the men, there’s a disappointed exhalation of air, as everyone had gotten rather excited for mass hanging and torture. But excommunication has a nice, official sound.

“I’ll talk to the bishop,” Father Michel says. Then he’s gone, and the other men trickle out after.

That night I tell my father my secret. He wants to know who the father is, but I don’t want to tell him. He threatens to kill me, then threatens to force the bastard to marry me, and then again to kill me with his own two hands. He knocks his cloth to the ground and throws furniture in my direction, and I know all this damage he’s doing will just make him angrier. So I tell him.

“Oh,” he says. “That’s a problem.”

The day of the trial, my father leaves early. The event won’t start for hours, but he and the other men want to be sure to see the rats arrive. “Imagine it,” they’ve all been saying, “thousands of rats marching through our streets. A great line of rats to the court.”

As he puts on his coat, my father talks quickly. “I’m convinced. A trial is best. A modern thing. A modern way of dealing with vermin. Fair-minded but effective.”

I nod and wipe a speck of butter from his mustache.

I stay home, going through the wares, preparing the cloths for the next day’s market. A hard rain falls outside. During a break in the storm, I step out to look up and down the street, but it’s empty. Most people are across town at the trial.

Around midday, there’s a knock at the door, and it’s a man holding a bundle of wool, looking to sell to my father. I allow him in, inspect the material, but it’s poor homespun, uneven and rough. It’s damp from the rain. I tell him we aren’t interested.

“I’ll return later,” he says, “when your father is home.”

I’m about to say that won’t be necessary, when a woman, the man’s wife, presumably, pushes in through the door. She talks up the merits of the fabric, the cleanness of the wool, the health of the sheep from which it came, the modern spinning wheel she uses. I shake my head and she switches tactics. Her husband is a farmer, and the rats ate his barley. What are they to do now? The man is silent, his eyes at the ground. Her children are begging in the streets, she says. She sobs and crouches in a pose of supplication, but her knees, I note, do not quite reach the floor.

“These are difficult times for all,” I say, and encourage them toward the door.

As they’re leaving, the woman turns, looks me up and down and smirks, as if to say, “You think you’re better than me, but I can see what you’re hiding.” I clutch at the fabric of my dress. I knew I was starting to show, but I hoped no one would notice yet.

My father wanted to marry me off to someone fast. He figured if he offered enough money, someone would be willing to ignore my bad foot and already-pregnant condition. But with the failed barley, everyone’s nervous and no one is buying cloth, so my father couldn’t spare the money. “Bad timing,” he told me.

I begged that he wouldn’t tell anyone about Father Michel, but he shuddered and said of course he wouldn’t. “I don’t want to go against a priest.” Did I think he was crazy?

It’s a long day alone. At one point, I hear the rustling of a rat. “Begone from here,” I say. “You’re supposed to be in court!” The house is silent, and then the rat begins scratching again.

My father returns in the early evening, stumbling a little and smelling of beer. Will the beer run out, I wonder, without this spring’s barley? At the speed the men drink, it can’t last long. He collapses in his chair, and I put before him some bread and stew. Once he has a bit of food in his stomach, I ask about the trial.

“Postponed,” he says.


“The rats didn’t show.”

I attempt a display of surprise. “But if they didn’t appear,” I say, “shouldn’t we win?”

He lets out a long sigh, which ends in a bit of a burp. “De Chasseneuz, the lawyer they appointed for the rats, he’s a clever man.”

“The rats have a lawyer?”

“Of course,” my father says, waving to swat the question away. “This is a proper trial. We hired the best, an expert on church law and the animal kingdom. Anyway, he says we weren’t giving the rats a fair process.”

“Fair process?”

“He says the rats couldn’t all get our summons, because they’re spread out over the countryside, and we only read the summons in Autun.” He runs his bread around the inside of the bowl to gather up the last of the stew.

“That’s it?”

“And then also, our summons was only for ‘some rats’ when it should have been for all the rats, because how were the rats to know which of them were summoned and which weren’t?” He gets a distant look in his eyes, and the bread drops back to the plate. “You know,” he says, and clenches his hand in a fist, “it was that damned Father Michel who drafted the summons.” He bangs his fist on the table and starts to get out of his chair. “And who do you think suggested that lawyer De Chausseneuz? That God damned Father Michel!”

“Eat your bread,” I say, holding it in front of him until he bites. He sits, then stands again and goes out into the street, and looks in the direction of the cathedral, to where we can just see its spire over the surrounding roofs. My father believes that you have to look at the cathedral when you pray. Why else, my father says, would they make it so tall, so visible from everywhere? He crosses himself and asks for forgiveness for damning a priest, and tells the cathedral he’ll go to confession tomorrow.

* * *

A new summons is issued, read from every pulpit in every church in the diocese, shouted into fields and whispered in corners where rats are known to lurk. A court date is set. Father Michel reads the summons every Sunday.

I’m too nervous to tell Father Michel about my condition, but it’s clear that he’s noticed. When he sees me, he quickly looks away. He no longer asks for help polishing the silver or some similar excuse. “You know so much about cloth. Come show me the proper way to fold my vestments.”

When we were alone, he could be so kind. He would stroke my hair, run a finger along my cheek. He kissed the ankle of my clubfoot. He said such things were all in God’s plan, that it wasn’t a deformity, but a sign of the intricacies of the universe.

On the afternoon of the new trial, I lock up the house and go to the cathedral. The air is heavy with quiet. I walk among the great columns, looking at the carvings of animals and demons, at the stained glass windows crowded with images of saints. I sit in a pew, then lie back and stare up at the impossibly high arch of the ceiling.

A side door shuts and I sit up with a start. It’s Father Michel. He pauses when he sees me, then continues walking quickly up the aisle.

“I came,” I call after him, “to look at the stained glass.”

He pauses, turns around.

“Do you remember,” I say, “when you told me the names of the saints? My namesake, St. Hélène, who discovered the True Cross.”

The corner of Father Michel’s lip twitches.

“You showed me the carvings over the doors, the one with Christ in heaven, the one with Eve and the apple.”

He nods just once, and then turns and walks on, disappearing behind the altar.

Back at home, the men have assembled. From outside I can hear the clamor of their voices, and as I open the door, Sébastian is saying, “Ridiculous! Ridiculous!” I head straight to the back room.

“I don’t know,” Édouard says. “Perhaps it’s true, these preparations.”

“This migration business!” Sébastian says. “I can’t believe it. I’ve seen a rat run very fast before. It can’t delay them so much.”

“De Chasseneuz finds every excuse.”

“We should have known. Father Michel says he used similar tactics with the woodworms of Mamirolle.”

There’s been another postponement. The lawyer, De Chasseneuz, said the rats were living all over the diocese, and for them to come to Autun from their various homes would mean a great migration. We hadn’t given them enough time. The next trial would happen late in the summer.

The men are debating the size of the diocese, and Autun’s position in it, and its distance from the various boundaries. They are each determined to draw maps to demonstrate their points, so they walk out into the street, where the dirt is soft enough to draw.

* * *

My father leaves for court, and I stay behind. I like this time alone, in the quiet of our house and shop. I straighten the cloths, re-wrap a roll that has come loose, sweep a corner of the floor. Then my back starts to hurt, and I sit. Dust motes dance in a shaft of light pouring through the front window. I hear a noise, a scratching in the ceiling, and then a small shuffling in the back room. Rats—two of them I can hear, but who knows how many live with us, and in the houses of our neighbors, or how many are sweeping through the fields. A prickle runs up my back. I stand and go out the front door, and I look at the spire of the cathedral.

 I lock up and hobble along the streets. Though my foot didn’t slow me down much before, with the pregnancy it’s hard to walk and pain shoots through my ankle. It’s a long way to the court. When I arrive, I slip in among the crowds of standing observers. A man’s voice booms, and I shift about to get a better look. This, I understand, is Barthélemy De Chasseneuz, the lawyer. He’s not a bad looking man, tall with strong, intelligent features, though he’s quite a bit older than Father Michel. Middle-aged.

“And so,” he is saying, “if a creature cannot follow a summons safely, how can we expect him to appear? To come into this town, which is so hostile to my clients, would be too risky. Furthermore—” Here he is interrupted by shouts from the crowd, and while others try to bring the court back to order, De Chasseneuz merely stands there and waits, much in the same way that Father Michel pauses in his mass. The lawyer does not even raise his finger as Father Michel does, but only lifts his eyebrows. The crowd falls silent.

“Furthermore,” De Chasseneuz continues, “my clients quite reasonably fear the cats of Autun, which are not only their natural enemy, but are further biased as they belong to the plaintiffs.”

The audience erupts into shouts again, and I feel uncomfortable among the noise and pushing, and so I slip away. The voices behind me become muffled, and when I reach the square with the old oak tree, I can hear the shuffle of leaves in the breeze. Soon, people start to trickle through the streets, and I look for someone I know. A woman I recognize, a neighbor, gives me a sharp look and turns away, but then I spot Sébastian across the road, arms waving as he talks to a group of men. I move close enough to listen.

“Financial responsibility!” he is saying. “That lawyer said we’d have to take financial responsibility if our cats did any harm to the rats.” He makes a noise somewhere between laughing and retching. “Imagine my money going to rats! A rat’s brain lacks the complexity for economics. A rooster, now, perhaps.”

The charges, I learn, have been dropped.

“A waste of time,” a man says. “Whose idea was this trial?”

“Father Michel,” Édouard the furniture maker says quickly. “It was Father Michel’s idea.”

“Father Michel!”

“Old Father Jean would never have suggested such a thing.”

I step back and push through the crowd, until I find my way out to a side street, and then I limp as fast as I can to the steps of the cathedral. I pause and look at the relief over the door, at Jesus and all the saints and important people at the last judgment, and I wait to feel guilty and scared about the fires of hell and horrible beasts that eat you alive over and over, but I can’t concentrate.

Inside, it’s dark. I walk past the great columns to the small side chapel, and there’s Father Michel, waiting for penitents, or perhaps hiding from the crowds. I can’t look him in the eye, but I whisper, “Father.”

“You have come to confession.”

I shake my head. “I wanted to warn you.” The words catch in my throat. “People were talking. They blame you.”

He holds up his finger to stop me. I look at the ground and realize how silly I sound—warning him about the idle grumblings of the men. Father Michel will not be hurt by this trial: he’ll probably find a way to work it to his advantage. Perhaps he’ll soon be regarded like De Chasseneuz, a renowned expert on legal matters or some corner of church doctrine. Some men have a genius for bending the world to their will, and I sense Father Michel is one of these, and likely De Chasseneuz, too.

I know there’s something else I want to say, but then again, what can I possibly say?

“Kneel,” he says, “for confession.”

I shake my head. I feel my eyes dampen and my face flush. When I speak, it’s hardly more than a whisper. “It’s not my fault.”

“You won’t confess?” I hear his slow inhale. “Perhaps that foot is the mark of the devil.”

My mouth is dry. I could dissolve into air, I think, and float off into the cathedral’s dark corners.

I kneel. I steady myself on the railing, and when I feel the prayer stool beneath my knees, I try to let go, but I’m too unbalanced. I grip the rail hard in my hands and stare at the floor tiles. A tear escapes over my cheek and drips onto the skirt of my dress.

He asks, “How long has it been since your last confession?” His voice is suddenly calm, almost kind. I’m partly comforted—all I have to do is answer the questions—but something in me pushes back. A confession won’t solve anything: not the rats, not the barley, not the baby. I look up, and there’s something uncertain in Father Michel’s expression. He’s still quite a young man, I realize. He repeats, “How long since your last confession?”

I stand and smooth my dress with my palms. “I don’t know,” I say. “It looks like about eight months.”

* * *

I walk to the outskirts of town. I pass the old Roman gates and can now see great swathes of countryside. Father Michel used to say we would run away, become a farmer and his wife, chase chickens around the yard and eat from the good of the land.

It’s high summer and the world is green and pleasant. So many fruits and vegetables are growing, it’s easy to forget the failed barley. From a house nearby wafts the smell of frying meat.

But in the winter, I know, things will get harder. I imagine the fields covered in snow, and everyone hungry without the store of grain. It was that way a few years ago, when I was still a child. Men will make alcohol from whatever they can, women will try their hands at finding meat on scrawny rats and cats. God’s mysterious plan—Father Michel’s intricacies of the universe. The baby kicks, and I wrap my arms around myself. Please, I think, please. I don’t know what I’m praying for. The celestial beings, I imagine, can work out the details better than I can.


image: Aubrey Hirsch