Shortly after Dash discovered a baby bird carcass splattered on the patio, I decided that I would get him a pet. He found the bird just after the kind of rainstorm that pounds the pavement clean.
“Is that its stomach?” he asked.
We were looking at what seemed to be an open egg with bony wings and a beak. Translucent sludge stabbed with cartilage.
Dash glanced up at the telephone wires that strung across our patio. We were living in a row house behind a factory. There wasn’t a tree in sight.
“The windstorm must have carried it from its nest,” I offered.
Dash was a strong child, but I wasn’t helping. He was just six, and had always been especially keen to “realities.”
We had no yard, just concrete for blocks on either side. Still, we gave the bird a staid ritual. We summoned as much respect and compassion as we could before we scooped it in plastic and took it straight to the trashcan in the alleyway.
When he asked yet again for a pet, I said yes this time. I was in no position to take on a dog or cat. I could barely afford our own groceries. I was single, in graduate school, and borrowing more than just student loans to cover my divorce attorney. Dash needed something to care for and love and I needed for it to be low maintenance.
After I learned turtles were not advised due to diseases, we settled on a mouse. I did internet research. Dash was the type of child to befriend and adore such a creature. I admit the start-up costs were significant for me, the Habitrail, the bedding, food pellets, and I sprang for extra tunnels. The mouse itself was just a few dollars. The internet recommended a female—less apt to get aggressive.
He chose a tiny grey one, and named her Peach before she was even lifted out of her cage. She looked so small. Incidental.
“Can I get two, Mom?” Dash looked up at me with that serious gaze of his, “so she’s not lonely . . . while I’m at my Dad’s?”
Did mice get lonely? I had no idea. I certainly got lonely. I often thought I must be the loneliest woman in Pittsburgh.
We left with two mice, the second named Tilly after a dog Dash knew.
Dash loved the mice. They would scuttle behind things instead of sitting nicely in his hands as I had hoped. I opted not to touch them. Their cage needed cleaning way more than once a week and the wood bedding somehow got outside of the cage and all over the floor—but Dash was happy.
Within three weeks, we awoke one morning to faint squeaking, as if tiny knobs were turning, mewing. Sure enough, the cage now housed a squirming litter of baby mice. They looked like pink peanuts with limbs. Dash was thrilled.
Another internet search explained that the babies could be repatriated back to the pet store at some point. I packed Dash up for the weekend at his Dad’s. I had to tear him away from the mouse cage. The babies were extremely watchable. Their mother had built a round nest out of cardboard and wood chips. The infants moved together in a single mass, stretching and climbing, turning and teeming.
The whole while singing their squeaky little song. They loved life, small as it was. Or perhaps I gave them that ardor. They were rodents after all.
The house was always quiet when Dash was gone. My books and my thoughts didn’t make much noise, but then I noticed an eerier silence. The squeaking? It was gone.
At first, I didn’t see anything. The babies were gone. Peach and Tilly lurked beneath something, unseen. Then the scene came into focus. There wasn’t any blood. Just body parts. The lower half of a pink peanut. A discarded leg.
I wanted to throw the whole cage into some ocean and forget the whole thing. These are the moments when parenting is the hardest . . . when you have to face what you don’t want to face.
I must have already known that I didn’t have anyone local to call, but this night proved it. No one was on my list for this macabre adventure: “I need your help with sifting through fluff for baby mouse parts and survivors.”
Dash’s Dad, predictably, was not helpful. The kindest thing he has ever done for me since I left him (which was urgent and necessary) was to agree to take Peach and Tilly into his charge. I could not bear to live with the kind of females who would eat their young.
There was one survivor. It had a bruised bite mark on its hip, but it still writhed and mewed. I put it on cotton in a match box to let it die in peace. But in the morning, it still wiggled. I consulted the internet. I fed it from a dropper. You should have seen it stretch and coo for the droplets.
It had only known the warmth of its siblings, its like kind, and then the teeth of those larger, but still, it longed to live.
I nursed the teensy animal all weekend. I couldn’t leave it alone, but brought it with me in its box. Administering the droplets of nourishment.
Then I dropped it. The box tumbled in my car and the tiny mouse, now a cashew, fell into the recess between my seat and the gear shift panel. I tore the car apart looking for it. I searched for hours, missing my class. Desperately searching and dismantling the car.
I never found it. Even days later when it was surely dead, I couldn’t stop thinking of its wiggle and stretch toward life, the way a vine will turn toward sunlight.
I gave Dash a tender story about how the babies needed to go to the pet store for proper care and how his Dad deserved a turn with the mice. He asked questions which I lobbed back with cheerful make-believe. But Dash is keen, as I told you.
Now my eight year old Phineas is begging for a cat, but I have never been a pet person, as you know.
The mice were not my only introduction. The two dogs we had in my childhood homes both met gruesome ends—due to freak accidents. Our sheepdog Bilbo, during grooming, was discovered to have 40 or so burrs embedded in his chest. He required surgery to remove them and had to have his lovely coat shaved off. After, he was skinny and covered in swollen wounds. My mom cried, because she had always pushed his chest when he jumped upon her. She hadn’t known she was hurting him.
After the surgery, Bilbo became angry. He bit my mother so we had to find him another home. My mom connected with a woman who had a sheepdog. Bilbo would have a friend. He wouldn’t be lonely. But later the woman called to tell us that her other dog shunned Bilbo—perhaps because his coat was so short. Then he ran in front of a car and was suffering, wounded. He would die, but he hadn’t yet. And I remember crying over all the ways we had inadvertently failed him.
Later, my brother got another dog, Patch. Somehow, his leash got caught on a wood slat beneath the deck. My brother, just 10, climbed under to try and free him, but before he could the dog asphyxiated. In my brother’s arms.
My brother is a grown-up now and he’s always been a dog-owner. But I don’t see a way to enter the fray again. I want to indulge my children, but . . . the risk. Even a fish will die.
I know that pet people will console me and tell me to go ahead and do it–jump in.
But I don’t know how to rouse my heart from this kind of worry.