by Mallory McDuff
The life expectancy of a free-range hamster in a Southern pasture is often short.
One breezy summer night, our young neighbor Lael brought her two hamsters to visit my 10-year old daughter, mere minutes before bedtime.
It’s hard to say no to this neighbor who often comes to our doorstep, holding her carrying case with its pink and brown leopard print, the cozy home for Stitch and Sunny, her black and yellow hamsters.
With her nymph-like features and high-pitched voice, Lael projects one singular message with her gaze: “Just five minutes, puh-leez????”
But a lot can change in a hamster’s life in a few minutes. And what happened next underscored to me those childhood lessons of how change happens in a heartbeat, especially in our landscape of rolling hills, fields, and forests.
As the sun began to dip beneath the pasture, under the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, the girls chased Stitch and Sunny in the overgrown grass. The air smelled sweet, fragrant, and full of possibilities.
Around 8:15 p.m., I overheard Lael’s instructions to my daughter to “keep on eye on Sunny” while she watched Stitch. With those five words, Lael transferred the responsibility for this yellow hamster onto Annie Sky, who couldn’t have predicted the dramatic events that would unfold.
When I opened the screen door, I saw grass moving near a white drainage pipe and a furry yellow head popping out of the pipe, as if looking for intruders.
This free-range hamster, under supervision, was now an escapee headed down a narrow drainage pipe, wide enough for an adult-sized fist. We all stared at each other, uncertain of our next steps.
“Let’s get lettuce!” Lael said breaking the spell. “That’s her favorite food!”
Annie Sky ran to the garden to grab the lettuce, realizing with each step that this escape might have been her fault.
“I shouldn’t have let her go, or I should have watched her more closely,” she said, shoving the lettuce inside the white pipe. Tears pooled in her eyes, spilling onto her cheeks as she dropped her lanky body onto the grass and peered into the dark hole, a possible death trap for Sunny.
“It’s not your fault,” said Lael. “It’s Sunny’s fault. She was the one who ran away.”
This perspective seemed reasonable to me, but Annie Sky wasn’t convinced—and Lael was putting on a good front—in the face of the loss.
Looking for reinforcements, I called my teenager from her Netflix haze to help with the crisis. My older daughter Maya used a broom to push a piece of lettuce further down the pipe, shining the light from a headlamp into the hole.
By 8:45 p.m. we continued to stare at the white pipe, as a dim orange and grey glow fell over the pasture.
Maya was the closest to the pipe when a yellow fuzzy face peered out of the pipe.
“Grab him!” yelled Lael, but Maya hesitated a mere second, and Sunny retreated beyond the curvature in the plastic, so we couldn’t see him at all.
“I forgot to mention that hamsters kind of freak me out,” Maya admitted.
With the onset of darkness, Lael went to fetch her father. It was time for both girls to go to bed. With his help, I fashioned a trap out of a large Ziplock bag with air holes made by a ballpoint pen and rubber bands to hold the bag onto the end of the pipe. As bait, we replaced the lettuce with dried hamster food.
While Annie Sky cried in her bed, Maya went into overdrive, pouring water down the outside drains, trying to push Sunny out using drops of water. When that strategy didn’t work, she began banging on the drains and stomping on the top of the pipe.
“It will always be my fault that Sunny got lost,” cried Annie Sky.
Approaching 9:30 p.m., I gave a rousing lecture on my perception that girls take on more guilt than they should, which seemed an empowering premise at the time.
“Does feeling bad make the outcome better for anyone?” I asked.
“No,” she responded.
“Does it make it worse for anyone?”
“Yes,” she said. “It makes it worse for me.”
“Does it change the outcome?” I repeated.
After delivering an address worthy of Gloria Steinem, I called Lael’s dad to tell him about the brilliant strategy of using water and banging on the drainage pipes, even though we hadn’t achieved any results.
“I think Sunny’s a goner,” he said.
Seconds after I hung up the phone, Maya ran into the room, her face jubilant, her hands holding the plastic bag filled with yellow fur!
“Are you sure she’s alive?” I asked.
“Oh yeah! Although I wasn’t sure at first,” she said.
Hearing the news, Annie Sky leapt out of bed, grabbed the bag, and ran to deliver Sunny to her owner, slamming the screen door behind her.
How many pets have been lost and then found—when finding them seems almost impossible, especially in a Southern pasture at night? And why did I have tears running down my face—because of a hamster?
Perhaps I was crying because we found a lost hamster named Sunny in the pitch-black night with a yellow moon rising bright above the pasture. The return of the hamster felt like an impossible feat that turned our emotions upside down with the immediate loss but then restored our faith in the impossible.
In the moonlight, Annie Sky didn’t need a flashlight to find her way next door.
There is a feeling when you find something that feels lost forever, when you can’t figure out a solution, but resolution finds you anyway. It’s the feeling of embodied joy, even when you know this too will pass in time. Even when you know so many losses are forever.
Some stories truly do have a happy ending. And even free-range hamsters—once in a while—will find their way home in the night.
Mallory McDuff teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her daughters. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques (OUP, 2015). Her writing has appeared in publications including BuzzFeed, Full Grown People, The Rumpus, US Catholic, and USA Today.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Books by the Editors
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.