Imani Saladeen

ENG 2343.001

November 23, 2014

An Open Letter to My Late Gerbil

"Only ignorance! only ignorance! How can you talk about only ignorance?

Don't you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?

and which does the most mischief heaven only knows."

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell

Dear Devo,

This letter comes to you ten years too late.

It should have been written the day you died.

It should have been written when I buried you in the backyard.



This letter never should have been written at all.

I'm sorry, I'm jumping ahead.

Let me go back

A few years before you arrived,

There was Nickels.

Devo, do you know what a rabbit is?

(I don't think they sold rabbits in the place that sold you)

Some think rabbits are rodents, like you, but they are not

Rabbits are warm, wiggly creatures

Long-eared and pop-eyed.

They stamp when spooked or indignant

They bump your arm with whiskered noses when you don't pay enough attention to them

They lounge against your stomach as you watch television together

Rabbits lick the salt from your tears

And share your applesauce.

Rabbits come in all sorts of colors, just like gerbils do

This rabbit was white and old-penny brown

This one zipped laps in the living room before I could blink

This one stole oatmeal cookies when nobody was watching

This one was Nickels.

This one was my best friend.

Nickels died two springs before I met you.

Before the sun came up

I found him

stretched out

His fur flaring from the wires

I knew before I touched him.

Rabbits sleep like you slept

Curled up, hunkered down

In case they need to run.

So I knew

(but I didn't know he'd feel so cold

Or still)

He was middle-aged.

No injuries, no blood, no mucus

The food smelled fine. The water was fine. The litterbox was fine.

I did not know how it happened.

I still don't.

I sobbed, with no time to mourn

I had a school bus to catch.

My dad buried him for me

Because I could not bear to

Friends and family came in clusters

Laid the garland of their arms upon my shoulders

To say how sorry they were.

I was sad he was gone

But if Watership Down taught me anything

The Black Rabbit of Inle comes for everyone

and he ran with Frith and El-ahrairah now.

Nickels lived a good life

he was loved and spoiled rotten.

(You deserved everything he had.)

I don't know if you remember Sherry.

She had short, brown hair

was a race fan

and reptile enthusiast.

Her home smelled of animals and life.

Creatures came

and went

through her home

like a revolving door.

The day Nickels died, Sherry patted my shoulder

and sympathized.

Somewhere over the next two years,

I expressed the thought

That gerbils were charming—

Sturdier than mice, but smaller than rats

I said that I would like to have one.

(I regret this now.)

What I meant:

"I would like a gerbil someday"

What Sherry heard:

"I would like a gerbil as soon as possible."

(I wonder:

What did you think when she bought you?

Were you frightened when you were scooped away

from your friends

and the only home you ever knew

and dumped

into a cardboard universe

with air-hole stars?)

My family was not expecting you.

I was not there to greet you.

In early June

A month after my birthday

My cell phone rang.

My dad mentioned Sherry and a cardboard box.

He sounded confused

his voice

had an edge.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

I came home, fast as I could

Opened the bathroom door

and found a square box.

Perhaps the size

Of a toaster

Or a microwave oven.

I opened it

and there you were:

A jet-black gerbil

With twinkling jet-black eyes to match

Twitching your whiskers at the fluorescent light.

The corner of the box was damp

Where you'd relieved yourself

A shining metal exercise wheel

Slowly spun next to you.

You shied from my hand

I left it there.

You sniffed my knuckle

And I brushed your back with my fingertip.

I knew my friend chose you

Because black was my favorite color.

I felt your heart

Through your fur

Rapid, warm, nervous.

I smiled and said hello.

Outside the door, my father frowned.

I think

He suspected it was a trick

Or a conspiracy

To get a pet I knew they would say "no" to

My parents are not lovers of animals

Or surprises.

Devo, before you came

Several fish

A turtle (now eighteen years old and still going, by the by)

Two parakeets

And a rabbit

Passed through our doors


They had preparations.

I researched library books.

I had long conversations with my parents.

We knew the cost of cages,

the cost of food

It was agreed

Those animals were welcomed.

This, I knew, was the responsible way to keep an animal.

I looked at you

And remembered a PSA ad

About how rabbits should never be given

As Easter presents

Because animals were not toys.

I was glad to have you in my life

But as your whiskers tickled my palm

All I could see

Was that PSA:

"Animals are not toys

or gifts."

It was not that I didn't want you

But I knew

Even then

I was not supposed to have you.

My parents agreed.

"Let it go in the yard."

I do not know if they were serious

But I knew that was not an option.


You came from a pet store

Your kind was not native to this state or this continent.

You would be eaten

Or trampled

Or starve.

You would die all alone and scared.

I refused to let that happen.

I knew you did not belong here

But I did not see much choice

You were my responsibility now.

I wonder if I could have returned you

At the time I did not consider it

It was rude to return gifts.

(Were Sherry's feelings

worth more than your life?)

I made it clear:

You were staying.

My parents made it clear:

They would not help me take care of you.

This was fine. You were mine, not theirs.

I was seventeen. I knew how to care for animals

Nickels lived well, didn't he?

I stroked your tail

(Did I ever tell you what a lovely tail you had?

Elegant and long, the tip flared out like a used paintbrush.

It was my favorite thing about you.)

I took you to my room.

I cleaned an old water-stained aquarium

fetched a mesh metal grate to top it

And spread wood shavings across the bottom.
This was your makeshift home.

(the only part I did right)

I set up your wheel

And gave you some vegetables from the fridge.

For weeks I

fell asleep to

the sound

Of the metal wheel squeaking

as you exercised.

(I miss that sound.)

In four days, you learned to run

up my arm

and sit on my shoulder.

I had to watch you carefully

Your dark fur blended with the dark room

And you had no safe, plastic ball to roll around in and explore.

I did my research

I learned you should have another gerbil, because you got lonely

(I spent half the day with you to try and make up for it)

You needed a solid-walled exercise wheel, not a metal mesh one.

Your feet or your beautiful tail could get stuck between the gaps.

(I watched you every time you exercised,

dreading blood and squeals of pain)

You needed toys

(You needed hiding-holes so you wouldn't be exposed.

I gathered paper towel and toilet paper tubes)

You scampered in and out of them and chewed on the edges

I hope you liked your toys.)

You needed a lot more than an empty aquarium and a mesh wheel

And I did not have a job.

My mother was too scared of you to come in my room.

My father said nothing

But I remembered

his oath of apathy.

I was on my own.

In May, I planned to buy video games with my birthday money

Instead, in June I bought:

your water bottle

extra wood-shavings

and as much food as I could afford.

(not much)

You ran through the gerbil food in under a month.

I read gerbils also ate vegetables.

I gave you what I could

From the pantry and fridge

I hoped it would be enough

Until I got more money


One sun-scorched morning in July

as the dust motes drifted,

sparkling and lonely

I found you


in a toilet paper tube.

Stretched out.


Already cold

and stiff.

Your black eyes



and empty.

Light from the window glinted

in the crusted corner

of your eye

Your inky fur

Still glossy, soft, and groomed.

Shredded cedar bits stuck to your tiny claws. I brushed them off.

I gently wrapped you in the green washcloth you chewed.

Left side over right, bottom tucked in gently as if you were a furry little burrito.

(I let your tail poke out a little bit. l hope you don't mind.)

I took you downstairs.

I did not cry.

I fetched the shovel from the garage.

I did not cry.

I broke dry soil and turned over patches of earth

under the pear tree

next to Nickels.

I did not cry.

I set you in the earth.
Packed the soil hard, so the neighborhood cats would not disturb you.

I dusted off my hands. I put the shovel back.

I went upstairs

and cleaned your cage

for the last time.

I did not cry.

My throat never even got tight.

Please understand.

It was not because you did not deserve tears.

It was because I had no right to shed them.

I remember

Dad was there

He watched me bury you.

"You wanna say a few words?" There was laughter in his voice.

As if I were being


I stared at your grave

trying not to glare daggers at him
And wondering

the idea

Someone would say words for you

The idea that someone would cry for you

Was ridiculous.

Or funny.

I did not have to wonder long.

He laughed because of what you were.

And what you were not.

I understood.

You were a gerbil.

You were a rodent.

You were a small animal

A "starter pet"

Something to give to a child

To prepare them for a "real" pet.

Would Sherry have dumped you in my home if you were

A Golden Retriever

Or a Siamese cat?

But no

You were a rodent




Given without warning

As if

You were a toy:

To receive



to be discarded

at the slightest convenience.

The death of Nickels got sympathy cards
and tight embraces.

Yours got single-syllable sympathies:

"Oh. Sorry."

and shrugs:
"It was only a gerbil."

and worst of all:


"It was a mistake."

"You didn't know."

"There was nothing you could do"


I was not prepared for you

But you were nobody's responsibility

but mine

Your life was in hands too clumsy to hold it.

my late 17th birthday present.

You were a good gerbil

and you did nothing wrong

You were clever, you were beautiful

And you wanted to be friends.

So did I.

Gerbils live for eight years

and you…



to live




You deserved a companion

You deserved hide-holes

You deserved quality food

You deserved treats and toys and exercise wheels that do not mangle tails

You deserved to be loved

You deserved all this and more


All you got

Was me.


I'm so sorry, little buddy.

You deserved so much better.