After All, Rats Sleep at Night

Wolfgang Borchert
Translated from the German by E. J. Campfield


The hollow window in the isolated wall yawned blue-red full of early evening sun. A cloud of dust shimmered among the towering carcasses of chimneys. The wasted ruins slumbered. He had his eyes closed. Suddenly it became a trifle darker. He realized that someone had come and now stood before him, dark, silent. Now they've got me! he thought. But as he blinked a little, he saw just two somewhat poorly dressed legs. These stood before him bent a bit so that he could look through between them. He risked a fast glance above the trouser legs and glimpsed an old man. He had a knife and a basket in his hand. And some dirt on his fingertips.

So, you're really sleeping, heh? asked the man and looked down at the bushy hair below him. Jurgen squinted into the sun between the man's legs and said: No, I'm not sleeping. I have to stand guard here. The man nodded: I see, that's probably why you have the big stick there?

Yes, Jurgen answered bravely and held the stick tightly.

Well, what are you guarding then?

I can't tell you that. He tightened his hands around the stick.

Probably money, right? The man set the basket down and wiped the knife blade back and forth on the seat of his trousers.

No, it's not money, said Jurgen contemptuously. Something very different.

Well, what then?

I can't tell. Just something else.

Well, don't then. And of course I won't tell you what I have here in the basket either. The man nudged the basket with his foot and flipped the knife shut.

Bah! I can imagine what's in the basket, said Jurgen disdainfully, rabbit food.

Tarnation, yes! said the man astonished. You sure are a smart fellow. How old are you?


Well, imagine that, only nine. Then of course you must know how much three times nine is?

Sure, said Jurgen, and to give himself time to think he said; That's really an easy one. And he looked through between the man's legs. Three times nine, right? he asked again, twenty-seven. I know that one, too.

Right, said the man, and I have exactly that many rabbits.

Jurgen's mouth went round: Twenty-seven?

You can see them, many are still quite young, too. Do you want to?

But, I can't. I have to stand guard, said Jurgen uncertainly.

Always? asked the man, At night, too?

At night, too. Always. All the time. Jurgen looked above the bent legs. Since last evening, he whispered.

But then don't you go home at all? You certainly have to eat.

Jurgen lifted a stone. There lay half a loaf of bread. And a tin box.

You smoke? asked the man, do you have a pipe?

Jurgen held his stick tightly and said timidly: I roll. I don't like a pipe.

Too bad, the man stooped over his basket, you could have come and looked at the rabbits. Especially the young ones. Maybe you could have picked out one for yourself. But of course you can't leave here.

No, said Jurgen sadly, no, no.

The man lifted the basket and straightened himself. Well, if you've got to stay here - that's too bad. And he turned around.

If you won't tell on me, said Jurgen quickly, it's because of the rats.

The bent legs stepped back a step: Because of the rats?

Yes, they eat the dead. Eat people. That's what they live on.

Who said that?

Our teacher.

And now you're guarding the rats? asked the man.

No, not them! And then he said very gently: My brother, he's lying under there. There. Jurgen pointed to the sagging wall with the stick. A bomb hit our house. The light in the cellar went out. And he was gone. We called again and again. He was much smaller than I am. Only four. He must still be there. He is so much smaller than I am.

The man looked down at the bushy hair. Then he said: Yes, but then didn't your teacher tell you that rats sleep at night?

No, whispered Jurgen looking very tired, he didn't tell that.

Well, said the man, what kind of teacher is he if he doesn't even know that? After all, rats sleep at night. At night it's safe to go home. They always sleep at night. As soon as it gets dark.

Jurgen poked little holes in the debris with his stick. Nothing but little beds, he thought, all little beds. Then the man said (and his bent legs were very uneasy, too): You know what? I'm going to hurry on and feed my rabbits, and when it gets dark, I'll come back to you. Maybe I can bring one with me. A little one, what do you think?

Jurgen poked little holes in the debris. Only little rabbits. White, gray, white and gray. I don't know, he said softly and looked at the bent legs, if they really sleep at night.

The man climbed up over the remains of the wall out onto the street. Naturally, he said from there, your teacher should be dismissed if he doesn't even know that.

Then Jurgen stood up and asked: Could I really have one? A white one maybe?

I'll see, called the man as he left, but you'll have to wait here in the mean time. Then I'll go home with you, alright? After all, I'll have to tell your father how to build a rabbit stall. You'll need to know that.

Yes, called Jurgen, I'll wait. I still have to stand guard until it gets dark. Sure, I'll wait. And he called: We have some boards at home, too. Packing case boards, he called.

But the man did not hear that. With his bent legs he hurried off into the sun. It was already red with evening and Jurgen could see how the sun shone through his legs, they were so bent. And the basket swung excitedly back and forth. There was rabbit food in it. Green rabbit food that was dusty-gray from the rubble.

Translation copyright ©1974, 2002 by E. J. Campfield. All rights reserved.



"After All, Rats Sleep at Night"
appears here as originally published in
Volume 19 · Number 2 · Winter 1980
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C.