By Hannah Grieco of hgrieco.com
We are a pet-obsessed house. We’ve owned dogs, hermit crabs, a Betta, and our fair share of rodents. We once had two delightful gerbil sisters, one white and one black. My middle daughter, six at the time, named them Puffy and Bob.
They ate from our hands and liked to be pet. They tolerated hard squeezes from my toddler and abrupt, loud noises from my autistic 8-year-old. Relaxing in my son’s lap, letting my daughters put little outfits on them, Puffy and Bob were exceptional representatives of their species.
So, we were all shocked to come home one afternoon and find that Bob, in what we would later discover was not uncommon gerbil behavior, had risen up against her social status of second-in-command. She’d staged a coup, or perhaps just attempted homicide. Blood covered the cage and both gerbils. I eventually ascertained that almost all of it was Puffy’s.
Puffy had already visited the exotic vet once to get a small sore examined. While there, I received an estimate of $900 for an ultrasound and overnight stay. I asked for antibiotics instead, much to the disapproval of the vet, who bluntly informed me that pet ownership was a responsibility that perhaps I wasn’t ready for. We left with antibiotics and a $165 bill that day.
For context: I adopted these gerbils from the pet store for $15. After that, I promised my husband I would not take another rodent to the vet.
Now here we were, my three distraught children and I, staring at a bloody, dying gerbil and her injured, attempted-murderer sister. My husband was traveling for work that week and answered my desperate text with, “Put the gerbil in a paper bag and run over it.” I called him a monster. He sent me back a poop emoji.
My son’s behavioral therapist walked in the front door as I texted back a photo of my middle finger.
I assured all three children that Puffy was going to be just fine and sent them out back to play, then sat down and explained the situation to the only other adult I had access to. The patient man listened with a straight face and then offered his professional advice.
“Listen, it’s important that we reduce the drama in this house. Clearly both of these gerbils are going to die. Put them outside under a bush and let something eat them.”
I was shocked. Then thrilled! “That’s genius. Our neighbors have an outdoor cat that catches mice and birds all the time! She practically lives in our yard! But…is that okay to do? Am I a bad mother for not taking these gerbils to the vet?”
“Take them outside.” He patted my hand reassuringly. “I’ll keep the kids occupied.”
I marched them out the front door and around the corner of the house, gently depositing the duo under the raspberry bramble. I hid the cage in the back of my car, then came back in and, per the recommendation of our therapist, told my children an outright lie that their grandfather had swung by to chauffeur our tiny patients to the vet for treatment.
They bought it. The three of them sang songs in tribute to their grandfather as I watched out the window, where the neighbor’s cat appeared, as if by magic, and crept across our lawn toward the garden. Tomorrow we would mourn our loss and soon this would be nothing more than a memory, a lesson learned, fuel for future therapy sessions for us all.
I slept soundly that night because that’s how good mothers sleep. I refused to entertain any guilt about our gerbils getting eaten by a cat, because gerbils shouldn’t murder each other. There are obviously going to be consequences if they choose to do so.
The next day I’d practically forgotten that we’d ever even owned gerbils! My toddler and I were playing in the front yard while her older siblings were at school when I caught a small movement out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly, like a Vietnam flashback: the blood, the cries, the hard choices while under fire.
I handed a bottle of bubbles to my daughter and sat her down on the front step, then snuck around the corner.
Under the thorny branches, right where I’d left them, lay Puffy. Stiff as a board and not eaten by a cat. Huddled next to her: Bob, very much alive, also not eaten by a cat. The temperatures had plunged below forty degrees the night before. Foxes and hawks roamed our neighborhood, in addition to useless outdoor cats. Yet here we were.
I knelt down and Bob, without hesitation, ran through the grass to me. She dove into the safety of my cupped hands, curled up and fell asleep immediately. I noticed her jaw hung down, leaving her mouth wide open even in repose. Was that a battle wound from her sister? Had she fought off the cat? How long ago had Puffy died, and did Bob wonder how this all came to be? Was she aware of her own blood-stained paws?
So many questions.
Thinking quickly, I hid Bob behind my back and convinced my daughter to go watch an episode of Blue’s Clues on the sofa. I shoved Bob back in her cage and carried her in triumphantly.
“Look who grandpa brought back! It’s Bob! She’s okay!”
I then texted our behaviorist and told him exactly what I thought of his advice. I texted my husband and apologized for not running over the gerbils. Later, I told all three kids that while poor Puffy had not made it, Bob seemed to be okay. That she had a broken jaw, and that I had researched broken jaws in rodents and discovered we could feed her human baby food and tiny seeds.
Bob recovered and lived another six months before dying of what was clearly loneliness. She basically moped around, looking for her murdered sister the entire time.
When she passed, my oldest asked, “Do we bury murderers?”
“Yes,” I told him. “Then we never, ever have another rodent for a pet again.”
We now have a dwarf hamster and two guinea pigs.
About the Author
Hannah Grieco is a writer in Arlington, VA. Her essays and short stories can be read in Washington Post, Huffington Post, Motherwell, First for Women, Hobart, Barren Magazine, and more. Find her at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud.