I bought a pure white hamster when I was in elementary school. Named her Snowball. I only found out she was female because she gave birth to two pups a few weeks after I got her. The normal-looking one I named ‘Rascal,’ and the other one was…special. Named her Princess. Princess was exceptionally small, an absolute runt. She was also missing a hind leg. The stump would move whenever she walked, as though she had a phantom leg I couldn’t see. I thought she’d die in a few months.
* * *
At the apartment complex I lived in as a child, I once saw a strange creature on a tree. Several other children were gathered around it, staying a good distance away while trying to understand what we were looking at. The creature was two or three inches in length, skinny, and green. It looked like an alien. Some rocks were soon thrown at it, and although I can’t remember the outcome, I wish I’d known then that it was a praying mantis. A creature to be in awe of, to protect.
A few years later my family moved into a house, and to my joy I found praying mantises thriving in the bushes around the house. I grew accustomed to looking for them in all their shades and sizes: light brown, gray, bright green, dark green, stick-like, leaf-like, anything that allowed them to blend in best with their surroundings. I soon became quite adept at finding them in the bushes, searching for tell-tale signs that what I was staring at was not just a branch or leaf, but a beautiful and deadly insect. I picked them up and let them run and crawl on my hands, sometimes putting a finger in between their pincers to somehow emulate their prey. And sometimes I would take a little pencil or twig and lightly poke them because they would flare up into their defensive postures, spreading their wings and forearms so as to look intimidating. I gained a deep respect for those little aliens, how foreign and mysterious their heads and bodies were, how patient they were when waiting for food, how quickly they struck at prey, and how they looked when eating the unfortunate insects they caught. I should’ve left them alone.
* * *
I’m a cat person. My first cat, Casey, is but a blur to me. My family got her when she was a kitten, when I was about five. She ran away a few months later, and that was that. I don’t know what happened to her, but I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened had she stayed. Had she stayed, we wouldn’t have gotten Katie.
Katie was always closest to me. I’d sling her over my back and carry her from room to room when I was young. After she was spayed at the age of four, she slowly chunked up. She was obese by the age of six, and sometimes I had difficulties holding her. Because of the weight, she seemed grateful whenever I picked her up. Her size also made for the perfect pillow, and her purring was like a car’s motor in winter, chugging along, rhythmic and hypnotic.
* * *
The dreams I dread are those in which the elements of the past resurface, showing me twisted representations of my regrets. In those dreaded dreams I see hamster cages that haven’t been cleaned for months and years, pushed into a corner, forgotten, the inhabitants having lived on scraps of stale pellets and deceased relatives after several generations of rationing and inbreeding, layers deep in death. In those dreaded dreams I see the partially-eaten carcasses of praying mantises, still looking at me with eyes that almost denote sorrow, like a young child wanting to ask something profound of his parents but not knowing which words to use. In those dreaded dreams I’m holding Katie in my arms, petting her as we relax or as she leaves me yet again.
* * *
Rascal lived for about a year until she died. I found her in the trio’s burrow, some nibbles and bite marks on her face. After Rascal left, it was mother and daughter alone. A few months later, it was daughter alone.
Princess lived another year and a half. I’m not sure if she was ever lonely, or could feel lonely, or even remembered having a sister and a mother. She continued to hobble away as usual up until she died, her phantom stride unaffected by the passing of her family. A demonstration of instinctive resilience to death.
* * *
I enjoyed catching praying mantises and putting them in a small portable cage (intended for hamsters). I thought I was raising the mantises, helping them in their path towards survival, as though they needed me. For food, I initially tried big black crickets from the backyard, but they were too large for young mantises to attack and eat. So my father drove me to a local pet store to pick up feeder crickets, which were the perfect size. I put a few crickets in and watched the mantis wait, catch them, and eat.
Eventually I put too many crickets in with a mantis. Overnight and during the school day, it was overwhelmed. I came home to the sight of a mantis half-eaten, lying on its back, staring at me. I tossed the mantis and its killers into a bush.
Another time after I’d raised a mantis, I put it on a sunflower stalk near the front of the house. Before going to school the next morning, I wanted to see how it was doing in the wild without my help. I saw it perched fairly close to where I had put it the night before, apparently unharmed. I got closer, and as the angle changed I saw that half its face, and a good portion of half its body, had been eaten away. Crickets were not the culprit this time, but a spider; I had put the mantis near a web I didn’t notice. The mantis would’ve noticed it. And avoided it.
* * *
One of Katie’s main delights was sleeping with me in my bed, which I didn’t often allow after she started having difficulties using the litter box. Around the age of ten, she couldn’t make it up and down the stairs very well to use the box, so my mother and I found messes around the house. I started closing the door to my room to ensure I didn’t find a surprise pile or puddle.
After she gained weight, her meow was like a middle-aged smoker’s, thick and raspy. But after a year of litter box mishaps, one day her meows took on an oddly frantic note. Something was wrong. My mother scheduled a vet appointment, and we didn’t expect anything serious. In the morning of the vet visit, I kept the door to my room open so she might rest better in there.
When my mother and I got home that day, Katie was waiting at the top of the stairs. While preparing everything for the vet visit, she let out a meow that I jokingly called a “death howl.” I gently lifted her into a carrier box and we went into the car, off to the vet. After arriving and checking in for the appointment, I sat down and opened the carrier box to see how Katie was doing. She was stiff, her face slightly contorted. I knew instantly that she was no more. Apparently the stress of the visit was too much for her heart to take, and it failed.
I cried more over Katie’s passing than anyone else, whether pet or human relative. She was my best friend growing up. She was my baby, my daughter, my sister, my mother, and I miss her fiercely.
I regret not putting Katie on my bed the morning of the vet visit, the morning of her final day. After my mother and I got home from the unexpected death of our loved one, I noticed in my bed frame a chunk of flesh and fur. I believe Katie had tried to jump up on my bed, a cradle in which to die peacefully, surrounded by my scent and the warmth of blankets. But she was too heavy. So in the process of trying to reach her final resting place, she only hurt herself more.
I also regret how morbidly poetic I let her death become. She had died on the ride to the vet clinic. More importantly, she died in my arms, which would have been romantically poetic. However, she died in a box in my arms. A terribly lonely death, filled with fear, engulfed in darkness, hearing my voice, her love but a few centimeters away yet forever out of reach. I never got to say goodbye, because I thought she couldn’t—wouldn’t—leave me. The frailty of existence finally left its mark on me, after I’d thought I was immune to such feelings of loss and remorse.
* * *
I got a few more hamsters after Princess died, but I no longer cried when they passed. It was just something that happened. Natural. I became lazy, rarely cleaning out the cages and sometimes forgetting to change the water and food often enough. I became apathetic, and I don’t know why. Maybe they weren’t worth my time to mourn over? After all, they were just little things.