The Ratcatcher

The Ratcatcher

My dearest friend,

I hope God has blessed you as of late when I have had less fortune. It grieves me greatly that I have taken it upon myself to write to you now, in what I consider to be my gravest hour. This I swear to the Lord.
I have written you two letters since I moved to this city for my study, each being no longer than a child’s rhyme. I ask your forgiveness and that of God, for I hope to meet Him soon. Until then, I shall pray that I shall retain my faith in Him. Will you, my devout friend, pray for me and my soul too? As you do, please remind the Lord of our sinless youth together. Tell of our fervent devotion to Him that led us to seek out the path to learn His ways, the path that led you, my dear friend, to life in the monastery and me to study in this city, far away from our home.

I know that He decided that it was to be that way. However, in my heart, this place had never been right. The folk who live here are God-fearing ones, modest and kind. The houses are taller, newer, and more lavish than our rural eyes are used to. My university provides me with an education far more excellent than my father could’ve ever offered me at his castle. It has taught me to write with words with rules rather than merely putting down the words we hear when we speak to one another. I apologise if that new mastery of mine shall not be present in this letter as much as I would like it to be; I have too little time for such corrections, my friend. I have already wasted too much time writing about our old shared memories. Alas, they bring back your company, be it only in ink. It is a comfort I wish to hold in my heart as Hades’ invisible hand rests upon my shoulder.

As I said, my friend, this city was a place of Christian piety. Such was as it appeared upon the surface, at least. The rats ruled from below. They skittered through the numerous burrows under the rounds, so many that the street stones caved in under feet, hoofs and carts. The lavish houses were infested, too. Food could be kept no longer than a few minutes before vanishing down the vermin’s throats. I have lost my bread to the rats too often to count during my stay. My boots and belt were also eaten, and how many times have I woken up with bleeding toes, ears and nose? The dorm’s tom cat has gone missing. Dogs are rare in this part of the land. None of my precious books are readable as I am writing this.
I was convinced this was a test of the Lord, my friend.

You may denounce me for what I am about to write to you now, but I could not cling to that conviction for long. God has His ways, and I, as a mere mortal, am not the one to understand them. However, I do not believe He would allow what passed to this city. He would not let the vermin eat infants from their cribs and nibble on their mother’s tits as she slept during the silent assassination of her child. He would not see that they send grown men into madness with their constant scratching against the walls and skin. He would not let all crops wither in this pest’s wake. No, my dear friend, this is the Devil’s play.
But then, I hear you ask, were there none to catch these rats?

There were many, my friend. The farmers around the city had no crops to harvest. They turned to reaping rats instead. Bakers, butchers and leather workers also directed their skills towards the vermin. Dead rats soon littered the streets. Some were even nailed upon the doors of family homes, their shrewd faces facing the street, their hand-like paws stretched out like a blasphemous mockery of the Crucifixion of Christ. Call it a vile sight, my friend, yet, I felt no woe when beholding these creatures. Not when more surfaced from the depths below every day.

I am not even ashamed to tell you that I joined the city’s crusade against the rats. My university had shut down because my teachers had become too occupied protecting what tomes and texts remained readable after the many attacks. The last time I spoke to one, he informed me that half the professors guarded the books during the day whilst the others slept. The roles were reversed when the church tower struck twelve times at dusk. The man told me this in whispers, for he had difficulty speaking with all the rat bites and scratches on his face. That is the last I heard from the faculty. With my deferred study and the unending raids upon my bread, I had little choice but to take my misery out on the creatures who’d caused it. I cannot recall how many rats I’ve crushed with the soles of my half-eaten shoes. All I can tell you is that there were always more, hiding under the streets, in houses, under my bed. I, — we were driven towards insanity when it seemed salvation knocked on the locked city gates.

It was a ratcatcher, my friend, yet he did not appear as one. He had a long cloak that seemed stitched together from autumn leaves. The heels of his bark-brown leather boots were high, and the tips of it pointy. He wore a wicker hat, too, though none of the type I’d ever seen. The man carried no snares nor nets with him for the rats. All he had was a foreign-looking flute and a smile on his queer, narrow face. I tell you, there was something off about this man. I knew it, everyone knew, yet none said anything. We were so wretched and starved, and the ratcatcher radiated energy unknown or perhaps forgotten to us. The guard who’d opened the gate for him even claimed his lame leg clicked back into its place when he shut the doors behind the ratcatcher. He would soon regret his claim, but not merely because it was a hopeful lie.
The ratcatcher declared that he could rid the city of the rats and requested an audition with the governor. There had been no need to bring him there, though, for word of the stranger spread faster than vermin in the town none dared to visit anymore. The governor soon greeted the stranger on the now-crowded street. He asked the ratcatcher what he planned to do about the pests. The ratcatcher declared:
‘My best man, my best people, I’ve come from far. However, I had no choice but to cross so many lands and borders, for I am the only one who can free you all of the tide of vermin that floods your city.’
People shed suspicious sideways looks upon hearing the bold statement. I can recall, my friend, how I met the eyes of the governor. As you might remember, the good man was a friend of my lordly father, and the two had fought fearlessly side by side in their younger days. The governor was that man no longer. He’d grown haggard and sickly. Upon hearing the stranger claimed to be the only one capable of saving his city, he nearly fainted. I sprung to his side to hold him up and found that he weighed less than the remnants of clothes I still wore on my body. With what might have been the governor’s last breath, he asked the ratcatcher how he planned to do that.

The ratcatcher grinned at that, showing off his strangely straight teeth. He said that the governor needed not to fret over that. All he and the people had to do was to gather up coins, one each for every head in town, which would be three thousand, six hundred seventy-four. He wanted them all given to him the next day before sunset. ‘Though I can promise,’ the ratcatcher said, ‘all the rats will already be gone before sunrise tomorrow.’

Oh, my friend, you can unquestionably imagine the awe that swept over us all! It seemed too unreal even to think that the rats would ever leave the city, let alone in one day! Few even burst into violent fits of laughter when hearing this. It was not a howl of ridicule that came forth from this. Instead, they were the cackles of the mad.
And yet, the governor agreed. I must confess that I had urged him to, along with his advisors, even though the city’s treasure chest was as hungry as we were. All of its gold had gone into the paws of amature ratcatchers like myself and food for the town’s folk. But do remember, my dearest friend, I never believed the man could live up to his prideful promise.

May God forgive me for that. The ratcatcher stuck to his promise.
When the town’s clock silently struck three that night, I was awoken by an ominous tune down the streets. It was like the song of a bird out of this world or a world much older. When I peered out of my window, I saw it was the ratcatcher. He played his foreign flute and gracefully hopped from one cobblestone to another as if it were a dance. It sounded like the clacking of goat hooves. His mantle radiated all shades of reds, oranges and yellows, and oddly enough, even greens and blues, despite the drap moonlight.
I do not know how long this display kept me in its grasp. However, I always shall remember what happened when the ratcatcher disappeared at the end of the street. His flute play did not decrease. It became louder. Where up until now it had had its grasp upon my ears, it now seemed to take control of my skin, my blood, and my bones as well. It took me a moment to realise that it was due to the shuddering of the building. Suddenly, rats tore through the walls around me like uncountable blunt knives cutting through meat. They engulfed me utterly. Their needle-like claws tore my skin, yet none took the time to bite me. They all vanished as soon as they appeared.

I crawled up, trembling, too scared to pray to the Lord. Looking outside, I beheld a scene similar to the one I had just witnessed. Vermin swarmed down from the houses, going up from below the streets. They all went in the direction the ratcatcher had gone. No one ever saw them again.

The following morning, the governor made one attempt to appeal to the townsfolk to pay back the coins they’d earned from catching rats. I was there with him, my friend, and I could see that the people wanted nothing more than to take the ratcatcher with their gold and silver. They could not, though. All the money they’d earned had gone to the surrounding cities for food.

Thus, it was decided that we had to search the city for any remaining rats instead of coins so the ratcatcher couldn’t claim his payment. Never had the people been more eager to see a rat. All street stones were dismantled, walls were smashed until they were more air than loam, and floors were taken out in their entirety. Alas, not a single rat was unrooted. A few deceitful souls proposed that we might present some old rat remains as a straggler. Even if the noble governor had agreed to the outrageous proposal, it would have been in vain. All snared rats proceeding the ratcatcher had vanished as well.
Later that day, only an hour before sunset, the governor approached the ratcatcher to inform him of the town’s situation. The old man even went on his knees. He implored that the ratcatcher may forgive him and his people, begging him for a few months more to gather the promised money.

The ratcatcher was apathetic to the pleas. As I’m writing this and recounting the event, I can recall the ratcatcher smiling at our wretchedness. He allowed the governor to beg for nearly an hour, after which he told the old man to stop. He pointed at the sun as it disappeared behind the buildings and spoke at last:
‘When the sun appears again, I will have had my pay. However, you must not trouble yourselves with gathering it for me. I will see to it myself.’

With that, the ratcatcher left. None dared to stop him — nor even come close to him. His sinister statement had turned the saintly status he had had when treading the city into something wicked.
That night, the city gates were all bolted shut like they’d been during the reign of the rats. However, the streets were silent for the first time in an unaccountable while. I deemed that that alien absence of sound kept me awake. In my heart, I sensed something else was at play, something that no sound mind would be able to explain, not grasp. I started to pray to God. I was halfway through His Holy name when I heard it; the clicking of hoofs upon the cobblestones. The ratcatcher was dancing below my window again. There was little grace or reason in his steps this time around. His legs appeared broken and twitched in all kinds of ungodly manners. His mantle swirled in every direction as if floating on a wind made by the man himself. It looked as if he was on fire.

And yet, this was not the eeriest thing about the ratcatcher. All the while, as he leapt from stone to stone, he played his accursed flute. I would swear before God that I witnessed him manipulate the fingering holes and blow life into the instrument. Still, I heard no tunes come forth. None my ears ever perceived that is.

Then, just like the night prior, the ratcatcher soon passed from my sight. In the absence of the tapping of his feet, the street became silent once more. I continued to stare at the cobbles below. Something was about to happen. I suspected the rats would rise again, engulfing the city in greater numbers than ever. If not that, the ratcatcher had most certainly called upon all entities in hell. Due to these terrors, I cowered like a mouse facing a cat when a foreboding groan came from across the street. A door slowly opened.

My first thought, Lord forgive me, was that the being that appeared from it was an imp. It was about knee-high, and its skin seemed grey as ashes in the cold moonlight. It moved on all fours. I hastily reached for the silver cross on my rosary, only to recall that I had traded it for a loaf of rye bread no less than a month ago. Instead, I made a sign of a cross, never taking my eyes off my fiend.
It was not long after I had finished that another door opened. It was one of the houses below my room. I leaned out of my window, apprehensive and curious about what kind of creature might emerge next. To my surprise, it was no devil. It was an innocent human child. I knew him by looks, for he’d been one of the choirboys who had sung in the church, never skipping a service until even the priest dared not to venture into the building because of the rats. The boy looked far from what he’d been to all those services. Like everyone in the town, his cheeks were hollow, his lips thin. I had sadly grown used to that sight. However, the boy’s eyes were an anomaly I had only then encountered. They were as dark as Satan’s pit.
More doors began to open. Children stepped out of each, some alone, some with their siblings, holding hands as if they were about to leave for a sunny meadow to pick berries. Their ages were all between two to twelve.

It was then that I realised my supposed imp was, in truth, an infant. It seemed less real to me, for I couldn’t picture how the small child could’ve gotten out of its crib and gotten to a door which would surely be locked. Thus, I stood there, stunned, just staring, as all the children’s inky eyes turned towards the end of the street where the ratcatcher had gone. Their bare feet were to follow shortly.
Once I overcame my bewilderment, I made my way down the streets. The children were already gone. Hastily, I headed towards where they’d gone, after the ratcatcher. I caught up with them just outside the city gates, where I seized the nearest youth by the arm and tried to call him to reason. He did not shed me as much a glance with those Stygian eyes of his. Though being no more than eight, he jerked free his arm without effort. Then he disappeared between the trees of the forest ahead.

I looked around to see that I was not the only one to have gone after the children. Two scores and a dozen or so other adults and teens ran out of the city gates; some already faced the forest like me. Of the other townsfolk, I suspect many celebrated their first silent night in years with sleep. Most, however, must have shut themselves in their homes, not wanting anything to do with the devilry.

The few brave souls that did come must’ve been as distraught as I was then. The forest was like a wall of claws and hands in the dark of the night. Even on a typical day, none would have dared to dwell through it in fear of wolves and men who acted like wolves. Yet these treats we all knew. Whatever creature — be it man or beast or worse — had lured all the town’s children into the woods, we dared not even imagine.
For a moment, it looked as if we might turn our back on the forest, on the children. It was then that God finally was with us again. He inspired great courage in one of the few women out, who suddenly shouted her child’s name. Then she ran into the woods, still calling, wailing, and praying. Her voice dimmed the further she went, yet, it remained steady. It was like a scent hound heralding the hunt. Other parents hurried for the trees as well. Not long after, we were all on our way, calling out to the children. Sadly, I was unfamiliar with any of their names and thus prayed to the Lord instead. Without His aid, I was sure we would not pass this tribulation.

Even after asking around later, we still couldn’t determine how long we had run. The only indication that we made any progress was that the soggy forest floor turned into steep stone. We had reached the high hills near the town. When I peered up at the paths that lead to its top, I saw the children. They were at the top of the hill, startlingly close to an edge that ended in unseeable depths. We went up the hill. We did not heed the thorny bushes or sharp rocks that hindered our way there. They had not stopped the barefoot children either. We could find our way uphill with the bloody path they had left behind.
I guess half of the pursuers had already gathered on the top of the hill when I reached it. They did not catch my attention, though, nor the children. It was the ratcatcher. He danced centre in the crude circle the children formed around him. He no longer wore his clothes, only his mantle, which shone in so many colours it could’ve only been made of feathers plucked from an angel’s wings. Under it, I saw hairy legs that ended in cloven hooves. The ratchatcter’s wicker hat had sprouted thorny flowers. Underneath them, he had grown a pair of horns tainted with the same savage paint he had all over the rest of his face. Small canines protrude from his mouth in which he held his flute.

The children’s entranced eyes gazed at the devil unblinking. One of the men who had gone up the hill with me — a father, an uncle, an older brother, or simply a man who cared enough to take the risk — embraced a boy. He tried to lift the child and shouted into his ears, yet he was met with the same resistance I faced earlier. Other townsfolk followed his example. I used all my remaining strength to pull an infant from a little girl’s arms. The results remained the same.

It was then that one man came rushing forward. He went straight for the devil, leaping at him like a lion, his arms outstretched into claws and his teeth set into a savage snarl. The demon must have sensed him coming. At the last moment, he leapt aside smoothly like a hind and played on without interruption. The brave man fell. He rolled on over the rocks towards the edge of the hill. The last I saw of him was his fingers trying to get a grip on the edge. The last I heard of him was a distant splash on the rocks.
I was too petrified to utter a prayer for him, but beside me, I heard some whisper, ‘Oh God.’ The devil ceased to move the second those words were said. He stared at us as if only noticing us now. His eyes twinkled, and he bore his teeth into a wicked smile. Then he began to dance like never before. This time, I could hear him play again. It was ghastly, yet only a hint of the horror to come.

As the tunes of the flute filled the cold night sky, the children looked away from the demon. Their still dark eyes turned towards the ravine. A woman beside me cried out as if she were being burned at the stake. It helped nothing. The boy nearest the edge set his bare, bleeding foot onto the thin air. Then he let himself fall forward.

Frantically, the townsfolk struggled to keep their children from following the same fate. They knew the futility of the act. Still, that didn’t stop them from clinging on so firmly that they ripped their son’s clothes off or got dragged through the gravel by holding onto their daughter’s dress. Soon the rocks under my feet were covered with blood of all ages. People screamed until their voices no longer could, and even then, went all. In the distance, I could hear the cracking of children’s bones on stone. Throughout, the devil danced.

Hell was on earth now. And by God, it would have stayed that way had it not been for one brave soul.
I am not acquainted with this man’s name, my friend, and these days I have more urgent matters than to find it out. I wish I’d known it then so I could have sent him all my prayers. He emerged between the indescribable chaos on the hill. He faced the demon like a knight would his sworn enemy. I only uttered a small prayer for him, for I was sure the same would befall him as the first who attacked the devil, and there was no known prayer to stop it. It soon appeared that this man had more faith than me, though.
The man approached the devil the same as his predecessor. However, just when it appeared he too would miss, he whipped out a rosary chain he had hidden in his hand. The chain caught the demon by the horns. The man did not let go. He still lost his balance and plunged towards the edge, but he took the satan with him. They disappeared over the edge, the man first. The devil managed to hold onto the edge for a moment but then vanished into the darkness below too. We all listened, no longer in terror for the children, for their spell had been broken. There was only one thud. It was too dark down the edge to see whose it had been.

It was not only that which made the road downhill feel more like a defeat than a triumph over the devil. The city had counted at least seven hundred youths. Only a few dozen descended the hill with us over the same path they’d come. Their eyes were still bleak, yet no longer dark. They were silent, quite unlike the adults. Parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles wailed, cried, groped, and prodded the remaining children to inspect and tend their wounds. A frenzy broke out at one such examination party, nursing a toddler. I witnessed not what caused it, my friend, but I shall never forget how it ended. Different folk had gotten a hold of the child’s thorn-scratched torso as others would not let go of its tiny bleeding feet. Each tugged the child to take care of their chosen limp. I dare not to write to you what happened next; all I can say is that it reminded me of an execution you long ago told me about, in which four cart horses quartered a man.

The people responsible for the child’s death had scampered off their faces disguised by the gloom and their newfound crowds long before its mother arrived. I ought to have helped her, my friend, but as you know, I am weak of stomach. The sight of the remains alone made me all too aware that my last meagre meal was crawling up my throat. I left the woman behind on the hill. God forgive me. I never saw her again, so I suspect the wolves must’ve come for her rather than her husband. Only as I write this, I dare say she has been the one to receive mercy from God, not me.

After a mindless walk through the woods, the city came back into sight. The sun rose from behind its walls, yet no one greeted us at the gate. Like a river branching off, the group broke up, each fork making its way through the empty streets, pulled homeward by some invisible force. I caught sight of a young girl there, whom I recognised to have come from my street. I took her under my wing without much thought and ushered her to her home. We exchanged neither words nor glances on our way there, for which I was grateful. Before long, I knocked on the door of her house. Her mother opened it. She flew at her daughter immediately, embracing her tightly, burying her face in the girl’s undone hair.

I assumed my duty was done. I was about to head homeward when abruptly, the mother drew away from the child as if she had been holding a plague victim all along. She eyed me, aghast, and demanded to know what had happened to the child. I related the tale of the night to her and added that if she doubted my words, I would swear to God that they were truthful. I told her she could ask the others who’d gone up the hill or her own daughter if she still did not trust me. Then, the mother made the most curious remark.
‘But then tell me, good man,’ the mother said, pointing at the child, ‘where is my daughter? For that, it is not… her.’

I looked at the girl and regarded her for the first time. She was the same child I had seen with the mother so many times, as well as the father, who had joined us by now. And yet, she, indeed, was not. She still said no word, and signs of otherness blemished her face. I knew the child not well enough to call any out, safe from the odd look in her eyes, yet I could see they were there. Mayhaps it was that one of her teeth was a tenth of a fingerbreadth off or that she bore five freckles more than she had before she headed up the hill. I could not say with certainty. The girl’s parents could not make any conclusions either. Ultimately, I mooted that the child was just drained from the mystifying incident on the hill.
‘All she requires is a fine night of sleep, a mother’s care, and a prayer to God,’ I told the parents. ‘I shall pray for her as well.’

The father accepted my words readily. He thanked me, placed his hand on his daughter’s slumped shoulders and led her inside the house. The mother followed. Before she closed the door behind her, I caught her eye leering at me through the crack. I promised myself to pray for her sceptical soul as well. However, deep down, I knew that my soul shared her doubt. Luckily this did not affect the rest I needed so direly. Once I entered my bedchamber, fatigue overtook me, and I fell asleep on the floor. I had no energy to take two steps to my bed anymore.

I awoke at noon the following day or possibly the day after that. There was no telling seeing all roosters had been devoured both by rats and desperate folk. The city’s church bells ought to have stirred me, though. They’d rug even during the most wretched hours, but now, they were silent. The same was the case for the streets. In the prosperous days, they had been filled with folk going to work or markets, and in the dreadful ones, swarming with vermin and ratcatchers. Now streets were forsaken. The houses were no better. It was as if the ratcatcher — that horned fiend — had robbed the town of its youths’ souls and the soul of the town itself.

The sight filled me with an alien unease I can hardly describe to you, my friend. The vacancy — the utter incomprehensible emptiness and loneliness that faced me and haunts me with still as of now… It pressed on me. It forced me to remain in my room, praying, looking outside for signs of fellow people. At night I knew no rest either. I kept listening for the fiend to return, reverse or end this misery. I believe I heard his flute a few times. I am not in a state to swear to it, however. I had run out of drink and shoe leather to feed on. Even then, I was hesitant. The fear of finding people weighed more on me than the fact that I was too likely to face none.

I had lost track of how many days I had spent starving in isolation when I finally headed out, and the signs had manifested themselves. I had become afraid of combing my hair, for it had started to fall out in clumps large enough to spin into rope. It is a hideous sight, my friend. Thus far, my locks had been my only disguise for my ever-thinning cheeks. I did my utmost to rub off the grime that accentuates my cadaverousness with my bedsheets, yet I dare say it helps not. It all clings onto the hair that sprouts from my skin, which tightens around my bones like a canvas on a frame. I felt small — still feel so small. And yet, this pain was nothing compared to the thought of my fellow folk laying eyes on me.
I covered up my devastated being with a cloth when I went outside. Only my darkening eyes were spared from exposure by a slit between the fabric. I stumbled from street to street. I had brought a bucket with me for water. Whatever water I might find in this dying town would only worsen my health, but I was convinced there was no more drinkable beer or ale, and I was so thirsty. The bucket banged against my knees.
I peered at the houses I passed as a discretion. It only made the weight of the bucket heavier. Between ajar doors and window cracks, I saw beady eyes following my every step. At first, I reckoned they were rats, having returned to spite the city even more, but then I saw that they were people. Their shadow-shrouded faces were as gaunt and hungry as mine. I hurried on.

My search finally stopped when I stumbled upon a horse trough. It was almost empty, safe from a thin layer of rainwater at the bottom. It tasted foul, but I drank it. It was only a short time before I was joined. A small shadow slipped from a nearby alleyway. It moved on all fours as it approached the opposite end of the trough. I recognised it. It was one of the children I’d seen come down the hill with me; a boy, no more than ten years old, though he appeared more beast than boy now. With a face that had become so slender it looked like a snout, he studied me with narrowed, dark eyes. I beckoned him to the water trough. The boy came. He leapt onto the edge of the trough like a cat would and eagerly brought the water to his mouth with cubbed hands. I didn’t dare to speak to him, afraid I might scare him away. Out of habit, I made the sign of a cross for both of us. It was then a third drinker approached.
At first glance, I feared it was another human who had succumbed to a feral state. As the newcomer neared, however, I soon saw that it was not so. It was a dog. I’d almost forgotten what they looked like; I couldn’t recall that they could get so large.

The dog appeared utterly untouched by whatever had gotten its rotten grasp on the town. I envied and admired it, and that filled me with bliss. I still cherish that moment as I write to you now, my friend, for it was the last flake of joy I have felt, and it was crushed swiftly, like a lamb’s neck between a wolf’s jaws.

Once the boy spotted the dog, he began to scream. It was like no sound I had heard before, and I wished none in the world ever to hear it. It was a screech of fright and pain, one even the most tortured criminals could produce. Then the boy scurried back to the ill-lid alley from whence he came. An appalling realisation struck me then. The child, the way he looked, the way he moved, the way he reacted to the dog and fled… He looked just like a rat. I pulled the cloth over my face away and stared into the little water left in the trough. My dearest, good friend, believe me, or choose to stick to your sanity, but when I saw my reflection, I saw a face which was no longer mine. It was one akin to the myriads of vermin that have brought ruin to the town. I was — and am evermore so, becoming — an undescribable chimaera, tainted by pied patches of hair, sloping posture and warped features.

I, too, rushed away then. The boy’s cry had sent the dog running, but I felt none the safer. My urge to hide had grown more than ever. I returned to my chamber unharmed, from which I write you now. Minutes, hours, and days pass, and I have no way to tell where one begins or stops. My room, which has become my world, seems to expand whenever I open my eyes. I try to utter my prayers, but they are unintelligible. My quill becomes heavier with every word I write you.

Lately, I’ve been hearing sharp nails scratching at the walls again. The sound is caused by no other beast than my fellow folk. One is distinctly different, though. I hear it at my door every night. It is the dorm cat. She’s trying to get to me. She’s desperate with hunger, and I believe it won’t take her long to find another entry. My time is running out…