The next day Yuri (alone; Anna had had enough of the hunt) searched the kitchen, the cellar and the attic but found no sign of Pankrat Kravchuk. This did not soothe him, it only convinced him that he was not being clever enough in his search, and that Pankrat was constantly on the move to evade him. Over the next few days the same basic situation kept repeating itself: Yuri, trying to ‘think like Pankrat,’ would guess where he might be hiding—say, among the boots and shoes in the hallway, or within the boys’ stack of board games—and then he would pounce on that spot and rip it apart, always ending up despondent when he did not find his quarry there. Anna eventually convinced him to perform these spot searches only when the children were away at school so as not to frighten them. Also she began to gently coax him to try to find a new job, though he continued to insist that his work around the house took precedence. What could be more important than protecting the children?
On Saturday while Anna was away at her part-time job at the grocery store, Yuri prepared lunch for the children. As he cut chunks off of the ham Anna had purchased to celebrate his new job he had a brainstorm: Surely in life Pankrat loved his ham as much as any Ukrainian. Maybe Yuri could entice him out into the open with a ham offering. He would leave it out on the floor and wait in hiding. Or even better, place it in some sort of trap to save himself the trouble of having to monitor the ham all day.
While the children ate Yuri set to work. He cut a small piece from the center of the ham, but then thought better of it—Pankrat did not deserve the prime cut. He ate that piece himself and cut off another one from the rind. That should suit the little monster, he thought.
For the body of the trap he emptied a large box of kitchen matches, retaining four of the matches and taping them together to form a stick. The stick he connected to the ham bit via a crudely tied string. He set up the trap near the last place he had seen Pankrat, beside his recliner, pointing the box open-side down with one end resting on the floor, the other on the stick, and the ham beneath. The intent of course was that Pankrat would be enticed by the smell of the ham to climb under the box, then when he tried to abscond with the ham the string would tug on the stick and drop the box on top of him, leaving him trapped.
The boys were curious what Yuri was doing and he told them that he was setting a trap to catch the mouse. And if they should see the trap sprung they should under no circumstances look beneath the box, but instead call their father immediately. Satisfied with his handiwork he went back to the kitchen to clean up.
When he returned to the living room a quarter hour later he was stunned to find the trap sprung, the box fallen down to the floor. Could it be that easy to catch Pankrat? He tiptoed up to the trap and put one hand on the box in preparation for lifting it. The other hand he held flat and open, ready to smite Pankrat the moment he saw his little body. He took a deep breath, then lifted the box, like a chef unveiling a gourmet dish.
There was nothing there—no stick, no ham and no Pankrat.
It was then that he noticed a slurping sound coming from the other side of the room. Boba rested on his belly holding the stick from the trap between his front paws, lovingly licking the string, the end of which still hinted at the flavor of the ham piece he had just swallowed.
“No Boba!” Yuri shouted. “Bad dog!”
Boba gave up the stick reluctantly and Yuri tied a new piece of gristly ham to it. He set up the trap again, but this time covering it with a wooden crate which he placed open-side down on top. He figured the gaps between the wooden slats would allow an inch-tall Pankrat to pass through, but not Boba’s snout. He told the children—and Anna, who by this point had returned home—not to disturb the crate.
For the rest of the day, every half hour, he would peer through the slats of the crate to check the trap. By the second day this period lengthened to every hour, and by the third day to every couple hours. The trap never was sprung, and the ham shriveled to the point that the string no longer gripped it tightly.
Taras seeing his father’s disappointment gave him some advice. “Maybe the mouse is too smart and he knows it’s a trap.”
Yuri slapped his forehead with his palm as he experienced a revelation even stronger than his original idea to create the trap. “Of course you are right, Taras! You’re a genius!”
Yuri had assumed that since Pankrat was the size of a bug he would accordingly have the intellect of a bug. But why should that be? He looked like a human, perhaps he was as smart as one too. In real life Pankrat had not been the brightest bulb, but he was wily, and certainly would have been able to spot a crude trap when he saw one.
Yuri changed his strategy. From the cupboard he obtained a fine china saucer, on which he arranged a few choice pieces of ham, some cut up boiled potato and a corner of rye bread. He placed the saucer on the ground, and beside it he set an index card folded in half to form a tent. Upon this card he wrote a message in Ukrainian, their common tongue:
WHY DON’T WE LET BYGONES BE BYGONES. YOU MUST BE HUNGRY. PLEASE ACCEPT THIS LITTLE DINNER AS A SIGN OF MY FRIENDSHIP.
The entire meal was laced with strychnine.
He covered this new, more clever, trap with the wooden crate and waited, continuing his periodic checks with more optimism than ever before. But Pankrat never showed up and the ham and potato slowly desiccated. Then a few days later he was faced with an unexpected difficulty. He was in the kitchen when he heard Taras call out from the living room:
“Tato! You caught the mouse!”
Yuri sprinted in. “Get back, Taras!”
Taras, startled by his father’s vehemence, fell back to the opposite side of the room.
Yuri peered through the slats of the crate and saw a brownish furry lump in front of the saucer. He lifted the crate. It was not a dead Pankrat, it was an actual mouse.
The children gathered around. “You killed him, Tato!” said Taras.
“Does this mean we can sleep in our own beds again?” Max asked.
Yuri decided that yes, they could go back. He was exhausted from his night-long vigils over the sleeping children and could not maintain them anymore, especially since they were so ineffective in finding Pankrat.
Yuri set up the trap again, telling the kids that there was likely to be more than one mouse. But the dead mouse was a serious blow to him, affecting his confidence in ever catching the actual Pankrat. He pursued his project listlessly for several more days and considered beginning a new job hunt. But then fortune smiled upon him and he was granted a sort of breakthrough.
Max was pouring his cereal into a bowl when Yuri noticed something odd about the box. The bottom corner was mangled all the way through the cardboard and wax paper, exposing the cereal within.
“Stop, Max!” he said. “Don’t eat that. Look at the box.”
Anna examined the corner. “It looks like the mouse got to it.”
“No!” said Yuri adamantly. “It’s too neat. If it had been done by little mouse teeth it would have been jagged, but these edges are clean.”
Standing on a chair Yuri inspected the second shelf in the cupboard. Between his carton of Pall Malls and several cans of vegetables, in the space where the cereal box had rested, his suspicions were more or less confirmed. He ran his finger through a tiny heap of cardboard and wax paper fragments, which debatably were uniform and flat-edged. Pankrat likely cut open the corner of the cereal box using some tool—perhaps the same glass shard that he had used in his attack on Yuri’s ankle—and then fed on the cereal. As he climbed down off the chair Yuri did not divulge his thoughts to the family, but in his mind it was clear that Pankrat was getting his food from the cupboards.
This was the new theater of battle. After breakfast he retrieved the strychnine plate from the living room and was about to put it in the cupboard when Anna stopped him. “Yuri, you can’t put poison in there!”
“Why not?” he asked.
“That’s where we keep our food! I absolutely refuse.”
Yuri reluctantly acceded to her wishes, but not before arriving at a compromise plan. He went to the hardware store (the first time he had been out of the house since he lost his job) and purchased a mousetrap. He tested each model by raising the spring-loaded bar and letting it slap into the wood, finally selecting the one with the most potent kick; he really did want to see the little bastard snapped in half.
Back at home Yuri cut off another bit of meat from the ham, which was by now down to the butt end. He retracted the bar of the trap and gingerly placed the ham on the trigger, then set the trap in the back of the cupboard with the cereal box in front of it. Finally, for safety’s sake, he told the children that only he or their mother were allowed to get the cereal out of the cupboard.
Yuri’s quarry indeed haunted the cupboards. Later that night, Pankrat sat inside with his back against the rear wall and his tiny legs stretched out before him. The kitchen lights shone through the gap between the door and the cabinet, illuminating the mousetrap. Now and then Pankrat would kick the side of the wooden plate of the trap out of boredom.
A cigarette lay across his lap like a log. He had grown, sustained by the more plentiful food supply in the cupboard, and his height was now about two-thirds the length of the cigarette. He was desperate to light the cigarette; he hadn’t had a smoke since a half hour before his heart attack. But how could he make fire? Also there was the problem of size. When he hefted the end of the cigarette up to his mouth it nearly covered his whole face. In the end he reached inside and removed a single strand of tobacco, contenting himself with chewing and sucking on the unlit tobacco.
He had obtained the cigarette the same way he broke into the cereal. During one of his explorations of the basement, under the workbench, he found a piece of a broken utility blade as big as his forearm. One end was blunted, allowing him to grasp it comfortably. With this tool he was able to chisel into the cereal box and the cigarette pack.
He gave the mousetrap another kick and spat brown tobacco juice on it.
“Ass, Yuri. How stupid do you think I am? First you set me a trap that was best-suited to catch a squirrel. Then you put out a plate of poison food, like I would ever trust any food from your hands. Now you expect me to jump on an ordinary mousetrap? You ass! Insult my intelligence, do you? Well let’s see how smart you are.”
Pankrat kept a strand of tobacco hanging out the side of his mouth, hoping the nicotine would boost his strength. He put his shoulder into the edge of the mousetrap and heaved, and heaved, and heaved, nudging it a quarter inch at a time, until he had shoved the trap half a foot over on the shelf. Now it rested just behind the carton of Pall Malls, out of view of anyone standing in front of the cupboard.
At the end of a long day Yuri relaxed in his recliner with a beer, enjoying a feeling of satisfaction about the whole Pankrat affair. He had found the creature’s likely lair and it was only a matter of time before he trapped him. He looked back upon the various stages of the fight and was convinced this was the last one. A final, triumphal smoke before bed was in order. But his cigarette pack was empty.
He went for a fresh pack in the kitchen. He opened the cupboard door and reached for the carton of cigarettes, his thumb along the front and his other fingers sliding down the back of the box. For the briefest instant he was puzzled by something he felt, a sort of mixture of meat and metal. Then there was a cracking sound which seemed to scream out from his hand. Time stopped, and although there was no pain in the present moment, Yuri was filled with a sick certainty that much pain would come, and soon.
Which it did in the next instant. An electric jolt of pure pain shot up from his hand to his arm and then to his head, from whence it ricocheted back down his arm and to his hand.
He screamed as he retracted his arm from the cupboard. His hand appeared to have grown a wide wooden finger: this was the mousetrap. He shook his hand senselessly but could not dislodge the trap. Finally he slammed the trap flat on the counter and with his good hand raised the spring bar. He looked in horror upon his quivering hand, half the index finger pointing backward at the ceiling.