Emmie loves her pets. She loves her Jack Russell terriers, Opal and Maddie. She loves her goldfish, Snap, who has been alive for over two years. And her newt, whose name is Sebastian, but she calls Newtty. But most of all Emmie loves Hamlet, her hamster. Emmie is fourteen years old and has loved several hamsters since she was seven: Carnie, Ophelia, Ichilles and now Hamlet.
Hamlet is not repelling the intractable force of time with the same elan he once possessed in the May morning of his youth. In fact, he is dying. He is having a hard time passing pellets and urinating. His fur is growing mangy and patchy. The world he watches wax and wane from behind the glass of his aquarium is dimming – his eyesight deteriorating. He is eating less each day. His gagging fits – like a cat trying in vain to cough-up a hairball – are becoming more frequent. All the dashboard instruments point to a bumpy landing…but a landing nonetheless.
And Emmie’s mom is not pleased.
It is she who is making Hamlet’s final landing as comfortable as possible. It is she who is changing his bedding. Keeping fresh food in his bowl – sifting through the mix and picking out the dwindling selection of morsels that Hamlet will tolerate. Holding the water tube to his mouth, because he can’t find it on his own. Grooming his fur.
Emmie used to perform these tasks to some level of consistency, but Emmie is fourteen. Any further description would be like, so, superfluous.
So caring for Hamlet falls to Emmie’s mom. She has done this before. Three times before. Carnie, the first hamster, was the tragic one.
Carnie received a car for his first birthday. A little plastic car that rolled on the carpet. Emmie shrieked with joy. She was never happier playing with the pet. And then Emmie yelled in alarm. Carnie was sluggish. Awake…but not moving.
Something was really wrong.
Her mother came and sat next to Emmie while she held Carnie in her lap and petted him. Something happened to Hamlet when he was in the car. His little body was contorted somehow…somehow, something went wrong…internal bleeding…maybe a spinal injury. It happened too fast for little Emmie to process. An utter shock. Emmie could not figure out what had happened. She did not push the car fast. But something happened in that car.
Carnie died in Emmie’s lap about a half-hour later. Comforting an eight-year-old while she pets her dying hamster, dripping tears…it is easier to catch a breeze in your hands and return it to its home.
Ichilles lived three years and Emmie made sure that he was loved. She would rub her nose across his body, sniffing deeply while the hamster waited, amused, by the affair. Like he was the human and she was the hamster.
But his life ran low and needed special care at the end. So did Ophelia when her time came. Emmie’s mom was there to see that they each got that special care. And it was Emmie’s mom who felt the pain of losing a friend, because each time one of Emmie’s hamsters died it reminded her of the hamster she owned as a child. And how it didn’t last. Her being a child or the hamster’s life: take your pick.
Yet, now that Emmie was old enough to assume hospice duties for Hamlet, she had a day-calendar that rivaled a US president’s…or maybe Oprah.
And when she did have time for Hamlet, Emmie cried and pleaded with her mom to take him to the vet. As if the vet had a cure for old age.
“I want you to take Hamlet,” Emmie’s mom said to me.
“Take him where?”
Emmie’s mom’s eyes began to water and she waved away the question.
“I got it.”
As I walked out of the kitchen with Hamlet’s traveling cage (a shoebox), Hamlet’s blanket (a strip from Emmie’s old sweatshirt), and Hamlet’s water bottle, Emmie’s mom said, “don’t tell me, when.”
I took Hamlet home. I was not going to put him to sleep. Yet. Unbeknownst to Emmie’s mom, Emmie had approached me the day before and knowing her mom would ask me to take Hamlet, got me to swear that I would not have him euthanized. I told her that he would die peacefully in his sleep.
What I didn’t tell her was that the sleep would occur while he drifted on a cloud to the continent of Euthanasia the following day. Hamlet’s organs were shutting down – it was the humane thing to do. I would take him to my house that evening since the Vet was closed.
I set the shoebox, thick with woodchips and plush remnants from Emmie’s shirt, next to me while I wrote. About two paragraphs in to the evening I pointed a space heater at the box, buffering it with a pillow. I was concerned that he would be too warm – then not warm enough. I changed out the pillows, searching for the right insulation. It was January and I knew he liked to be warm. Emmie always kept him snuggled in a little blanket. Then I turned to write.
For about five minutes.
I heard scratching form the box. Maybe he needs to drink. But he wouldn’t drink – not even when I held the water tube to his mouth.
I stopped trying to write. When I agreed to take Hamlet I thought, “He’ll be with me for a day; he’ll slowly slip away; I’ll take him to the Vet’s; I’ll keep him warm in the meantime.” Easy.
But within an hour of him being with me, he dominated my concerns. How to get him to drink? It was one thing if he wasn’t eating – but dying by dehydration…I didn’t want to witness that. I tried to get him to accept the water bottle. No way.
“Fine,” I thought. “What else can do I?”
I picked up my Bic Ultra black pen with the “Round Stic Grip” and focused on the novel I was writing. Nothing. I was a tundra of creativity. I let my eyes lose focus, staring at the page. I looked at the pen.
I took the pen cap to the sink and rinsed it off. I brought it back to Hamlet’s box and jiggled a drop of water onto the pen cap’s slightly concave arm. It extended about ¾” below the cap and just wide enough to hold a drop of water on its tip. I balanced the water drop on the end of the arm and tipped it into Hamlet’s mouth. It rolled into his mouth. He swallowed.
I spent the next few minutes coaxing drops of water into Hamlet, succeeding about one out of every six attempts – maybe eight drops before he tired of the activity. Every two hours we played the pen cap game. Before I went to bed I adjusted his blankets and set the space heater on low.
The following morning I heard scratching. Today I was to take him to the Vet’s. I looked at the golden lump rise and fall with each breath. I decided to keep him with me. As long as he was drinking and eating a little (he had eaten one nugget of something the previous day) I was not going to put him to sleep.
In between seeing students (I am a tutor) and other responsibilities, I monitored Hamlet’s condition. When I tried writing, I could not focus on my novel. I was thinking of Hamlet. So I started writing about him. Within a few minutes the ramblings morphed into a story, by that night I had a novel framed-out and ready for construction. The Feast of the Moon is that novel: Emmie’s life with Hamlet, Carnie, Ophelia, and Ichilles. But the voice you hear in the story is Hamlet’s. It is his story. Hamlet died peacefully in his sleep that night.
Author bio: Brian started telling stories to himself when he was five years old and is pleased to be sharing the experience with a wider audience. His first novel, The Feast of the Moon, is now available in paperback and as an e-book. Visit his blog: http://brianwapole.com/