Friday, January 15, 2010

Hamster Stories, or What Pets Say about Us

Hamsters, like high school, are one of those universals of American childhood. Even if your first-grade class didn’t have Snuffles the Hamster as a class project, where you and a mob of six-year-olds resorted to fisticuffs, name calling, and pig-tail pulling in order to determine who fed the rodent today, you’ve at least heard others trading their personal hamster stories like last year’s baseball cards.

Some hamster stories I’ve heard: the eighth-grade math student teacher who dropped his hamster into a pot of boiling tomato soup (allegedly by accident) and then attempted to bandage the poor critter’s limbs, the hamster who fled and then spent a year living in the basement walls while living off pilfered dog food, an escaped hamster discovered several weeks after its departure in the bottom of a bag of rice. And don’t get me started on the summer my next-door neighbor in Susquehanna’s dorms had two hamsters that I had to hamster-sit on the weekends--weekends filled with shrill hamster chirps. That resulted in lots of squirmy, squeaky, baby hamsters that tried to eat each other.

So let me make this abundantly clear: Hamster stories never end well.

And, as Christine Schutt shows us in her short story “To Have and To Hold,” gerbil stories are quite similar in their lack of happy endings.

“To Have and To Hold” homes in on a few moments in a woman’s life as she cleans her kitchen and chases after escaped gerbils--both of whom have eaten off their own tails. The narrator is shockingly candid about her feelings toward the pets: “I hate the gerbils. Nothing about them is cute; they twitch and gnaw. The animals live in a plastic night-glow cage set next to the stove, because this kitchen is small, even if it is on Fifth Avenue, and here they scrabble and play and shred their tray paper--dirty animals that eat their own tails.”

But Schutt isn’t writing simply to show us the horrors of rodents in the apartment; these gerbils squirm into the narrator’s consciousness, and the hiding places and cannibalism of the gerbils present a mirror world to the narrator’s own domestic situation. Her husband has taken a lover, somebody who has been a close friend of hers, and suddenly the situation of the gerbils--devouring their own tails in sport, spending their time hiding from each other--echoes the narrator’s life. Schutt works this metaphor deftly, avoiding anything as hackneyed as a direct admission of how the gerbils reflect her life.

Because, as far as the narrator can see, the gerbils do not mirror her life; she continues to see them as disgusting, as foul: “I admit it, I am driven. Last thing I do each night is wash my floor. One of the reasons the gerbils are such a problem is that they are so ridiculously dirty.”

Sometimes a gerbil is just a gerbil; sometimes, a rodent is more than that just a critter scurrying about. Schutt shows us how pets--loved or hated--can reveal the dynamics of a relationship, a domestic situation, or an outlook on life.

Schutt, Christine. “To Have and To Hold,” from Nightwork. Paperback. Dalkey Archive Press. 129 pp. $10.95.


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