It is not much fun being a rat. Everyone hates rats. You lot burble on about universal love, but you are allowed to hate rats.
There is only one lovable rat in all of your literature – adorable Ratty in Wind in the Willows. And shall I tell you something? He is not a rat. He is a water vole – with a squat face, a stubby furry tail and ridiculous little ears. Pah!
You have made the very word “rat” into a sort of universal insult. A loose woman, a dishonest man, a liar, a snitch, any devious sneaking individual. And I bet you think you know that it was mean, filthy, malevolent rats who infected you all with the bubonic plague – even though some decent and fair-minded human scientists are beginning to believe that this is not necessarily true.
It is hard having everyone hate you, and especially hard when it so unfair: it’s unfair because we run round your stupid mazes to help you with your stupid research.
It’s unfair because we make excellent, responsive and loving pets.
It’s unfair because we self-groom at least three times a day, while you all seem to think that one shower is more than enough.
It’s unfair because we are famously intelligent, while also gentle and affectionate.
It’s unfair because we are good parents.
What’s your problem?
So yes it is hard. And, let me tell you, it is hardest of all at Christmas. The crucial role we played that night in Bethlehem is entirely ignored. And if you don’t believe me, go to Google Images and search for “Nativity paintings”. Believe me there are lots and lots, there are indeed millions, of them. And in a very large number of these paintings there are animals. In fact there are an extraordinary number and variety of animals. You start of course with the sheep but move on fast: cows and goats and donkeys and mules and horses; both Bactrians and dromedaries (two- and one-humped camels to you) and dogs and pigs and a rather strange selection of deer. There are lions and cats and a diverse array of birds. There are foxes and bears and wolves and elephants. There are kangaroos for heaven’s sake – I suppose they just hopped across from the Antipodes.
But no rats. None. We have been excluded, discriminated against, written out, diminished, despised and dismissed. And it is not fair.
Think about it for a moment. Here you have a stable – a fairly basic building with a manger in it – pretty near to the pub in a small rural town in the Middle East, 2,000 years ago. There is probably a caravanserai nearby, because there nearly always is, which inevitably means food waste and human waste. There are no public washing facilities, or even closed toilets. The streets are pretty full and pretty restless at the time because of this census thing that is going on, but the shed is tucked away quietly in a back corner. Now, take a deep breath – what wild animal are you most likely to find there? Go on – try to think honestly and face the facts.
Frankly the correct answer is rather more likely to be rats than peacocks or gazelles. It’s a no-brainer.
And, no surprise, we were indeed there. Which is more than can be said for the penguins and leopards and giraffes and company ltd. who have snuck into the pictures since.
It was pretty disruptive at first, as you can imagine. We had just got our five tucked up for the night, all snuggled in straw in the manger. They were just coming up to a month old so they were all grumpy adolescence – no we do not have acne, but we do have hormones, believe you me – and full of overexcitement and cheek and know-it-all swagger. The pubescent rat has quite a lot to swagger about, to be honest, but the weary rat parents can do without it when you are trying to get them to bed and all of a sudden your space is invaded by a whole lot of silliness. You may have noticed how much drama humans are capable of making about getting babies; it is not that difficult, you know. They could take some lessons from us on this as well as other things if they so chose – but oh no.
Well, if they really cared so much you would have thought some of those fat rich blokes could have made some space in the inn for that poor woman: they did not need to send a whole lot of grumbling servants to hang around grouching about moving the horses and mules out into the yard and winding up our little ones. We certainly did not need those two naggy old ladies complaining that no one understood what women had to go through and men were so selfish … and … and … and …
Then after all that palaver he carried her in.
And then … but it is too hard to explain. She was … well she was lovely, but that was not really the point. And she was so tired, you could see she was exhausted before she even began on her weary night’s work, but that was not really the point either. I don’t know how to say it. I want to say that she was like a rat, but you all hate rats so that will not help you understand. But she was like a rat – she was sharply attentive to her task; she was alert, intelligent about the business, concentrated – as calm as she could be, able to bide her time, still and focused, hard-working.
It is not a pretty thing, birthing a baby, but like a rat she brought her whole self to it and made it beautiful. She was graceful somehow; full of grace in her body and in her mind. It is harder for humans to do the birthing work than it is for us rats – our babies have smaller heads and more pointy noses, and actually despite the various other unfair advantages bipedalism makes birthing harder. It is probably a good thing that you usually only have one at a time. But don’t let anyone tell you that it is easy. She did not make it easy, but she did make it graceful.
We kept quiet; we lurked behind a sort of log-pile in a corner and we watched. I doubt they even knew we were there. And eventually, perhaps soon after midnight, the baby was born. I do not really have a thing about small human babies, they seem sort of floppy and naked and moderately useless, but as neonatal humans go this one was rather sweet – all scrunched up with an absurd tuft of black fur on its head and little wrinkled hands and very silly feet. The young man wrapped it up, I have to say rather clumsily, in some long strips of cloth one of the old women produced for them; and then she fed it like you do and handed it back to her man. They were both smiling, but it was fairly clear that he hadn’t the least idea what to do with a baby in a shed in the middle of the night. He just stood there looking a bit awkward and uncertain.
And then I heard a funny scratchy noise and I looked round and there were our five climbing solemnly out of the manger and scuttling silently across the floor towards some loose straw. But I think he must have heard something, because he glanced up and when he saw the manger he looked relieved, went over and put the wee baby in it. I will not deny that I was proud – for all their carry on and talkback, they could see what needed doing and then do it. Just what any decent parent hopes for.
So then there was a little peace and she curled up and went to sleep and he covered her with a cloak – and it was dark and sweet. But it did not last long. All of a sudden the barn was full of people – someone said they were shepherds though my personal view remains that they were all drunks. What a carry on. And no, for your information, they did not bring any lambs with them: it was December, midwinter for heaven’s sake – there aren’t any lambs in December: everyone knows that. They did not even bring any sheep. Who wants to be bringing sheep off the hill in the middle of the night? Do have some sense.
Eventually they push off and it is all quiet again. The young couple sleep wrapped in each other’s arms; there is a huge star overhead, so there’s some light, but gentle as it were. And then it began to get cold. I don’t know if you have ever been in the desert, but at night it can get really surprisingly cold; apparently clouds keep the heat in and there do not tend to be many of those in a desert. It began to get cold – and we started to feel anxious about the baby.
I thought about waking the parents, but they were so tired and sleeping so deeply and sweetly … however it is not good for newborns to be cold, so in the end my partner just climbed into the manger and snuggled up to the child. He was too young to respond in any way – human babies are pretty slow as you may know, but you could see him totally relaxed, his head against her ribcage and her lovely fluffy fur warm against him. Rather sweet really.
Later the young couple woke and he got up and came to get the baby for her to feed. I was anxious for a moment, because on the whole humans tend to freak out when they see rats at all, let alone rats cuddled up with their child. But not him. He smiled, with a deep sort of amusement, scratched the back of her neck with one finger and said, “Thank you.” And he meant it.
That’s it really. But you can see why we resent the fact that we are never in the paintings, never acknowledged or praised or thanked. I know rats are not always sweetness and light, but – let me tell you – nor are sheep, mules, camels or dogs. Nor are humans; especially not humans.
This is a deep ancient story for us rats. We teach it to our children and carry it with us when we travel. We want to remember it, but also we want humans, and others, to remember it – we are like you really, we don’t always behave well but we always want to be loved. Is that such a big ask?
A while back we thought we might go for canonisation – if all those popes and neurasthenic virgins can be saints surely that mother rat could be too? Apart from being owed, frankly, we also sort of thought it might be a way of boosting our public image. And after all, worldwide, there are considerably more rats than Catholics.
But then we discovered the cost. The boss guy in Rome says he wants to limit what you can pay to get someone canonised to €100,000. Unbelievable. It is not that we cannot afford it – believe me. Two billion rats could raise that much overnight. Easily. That is not the issue. It is just too much money.
The World United Rat Committee is making a voluntary donation of €100,000 to maternity services in the Third World. We think that is a better way to celebrate Christmas.
Source: “Rattus Beatus” by Sara Maitland in The Tablet
21/28 December 2019, pages 31-32
“Imagine that the world is a circle, that God is the centre, and that the radii are the different ways human beings live. When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the centre of the circle, they come closer to one another at the same time as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another. And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.”
Dorotheus of Gaza, a sixth-century monk