I raced up the stairs, unbelieving of what my little girls were claiming as truth.
"There's NO WAY Pip could be missing! Dad just gave her food and water this morning. He SAW HER."
I grasped at whatever straws I could think of.
"She's teeny-tiny, remember. She's probably just buried herself in the shavings somewhere, and is taking a little nap."
Yes, that must have been it.
These are DWARF hamsters we're talking about, here. If any of you have ever seen the size of a Canadian dollar coin (aptly called a "loonie"), then imagine that Pip could have sat herself on top of one, and the edges of the coin would still have been visible. THAT SMALL.
And yet, we combed through every, single little bit of fluff in that cage, and there was only one little brown hamster to be found.
Pip was definitely missing.
The girls were inconsolable. Grief was unleashed, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard for blocks around.
"How did you manage to LOSE HER?" I hissed at my poor husband from between clenched teeth. "Didn't I TELL you to keep the door SHUT??!!"
His claims of absolute innocence were strongly refuted by the children, who went off to find the cats and check their teeth for further evidence.
"The cats didn't get her... I SWEAR..." the husband wracked his brain for a logical explanation. "I was here the whole weekend, and I certainly would have heard the cats chasing that hamster around. I fed those two little feckers only this MORNING!! There's no WAY the cats could have gotten her..."
"You kept the door SHUT?" I arched an eyebrow at him.
"YES. The bedroom door was SHUT at all times, I promise!" he claimed.
A thought suddenly occurred to me.
"The BEDROOM door was shut... but what about the CAGE door? When you went to the bathroom to fill up the little water dish... DID YOU SHUT AND LOCK THE CAGE DOOR when you were out of the room??"
I saw a flicker of doubt in his eye, as he cast his mind back.
"Those feckers are FAST, man. They are PROGRAMMED to escape. Can you tell me that you are SURE you locked that cage door, each and every time you opened and shut it??" I demanded, every inch the prosecutor of the case, coming in for the kill.
"Well...." he wavered.
I didn't wait for an answer.
Calling the girlies, I raced down to the kitchen and began rounding up as many deep mixing bowls as I could find. They followed my orders to lock both cats in the basement, and then thundered up the stairs after me. I grabbed handfuls of paperback books off of the shelves in the upstairs hallway, and requested that the kids do the same.
What for, you ask??
Hamster Traps, of course.
If Pip had managed to make a lightning-quick escape that morning, then chances were that she was still somewhere in the vicinity of the upstairs. We placed the deep bowls on the floor, all over the bedrooms and upstairs hallway. We poured handfuls of hamster food and yogurt treats at the bottom of each bowl, and built little makeshift stair-cases of books up to the edge of each one. The idea was that Pip would smell the food, toddle up the "stairs", then slip into the bowl and be unable to get out, once she had finished packing her cheeks with the food.
After a long and exhausting evening of fruitless searching-- under furniture, in closets, pockets, and down floor air vents, the children sobbed themselves to sleep.
I, however, was completely unable to rest that night. I kept hoping that I could hear the scurry of tiny feet... Night-time would be the time for nocturnal Pip to re-appear, after all.
I spent a great deal of that night lying wide-awake in my bed, and alternatively, sitting in wait at the top of the staircase, where I had a good view of the entire hallway.
But, in spite of all of our efforts, there was no sign of Pip that night. Or the next night. Or the next.
I did everything I could to try and jolly my children along, as time passed. We made up little stories about Pip the Great Adventurer, how she had cleverly plotted her escape, and how she had discovered a secret passage to the Great Outdoors. She was, we willed ourselves to believe, now living with a gang of field mice somewhere out in our garden. In true "Country Mouse/City Mouse" tradition, we imagined her leaning on miniature mantelpieces late at night, enthralling her audience with tales of her time behind bars, and of her genius at foiling her gaolers.
Time passed. And, eventually, we all began to relax a bit about the situation. After a week of meticulous cleaning, I became fairly certain that she was no longer in the house. The complete absence of droppings led me to believe that she had, indeed, in all likelihood, managed to slip down an air vent and subsequently "met her Maker" (or, at least, the bowels of the air conditioning system).
Eventually, the deep mixing bowls were gathered up, as we began to need them for cooking and baking... The books were put back on their shelves.
And all this time, tiny Freckle, the lone Hamster In Residence, frolicked in the cage that was now ALL HERS, and didn't seem to miss her sister one. single. bit.
Life returned to some semblance of "normal". Or, as normal as it ever gets around here.
Truth be told, the "bloom was off the rose", as far as hamsters were concerned. The girls lost interest in Freckle, which is not actually in their natures... They have always been ferociously protective pet-owners, and taken their responsibility for the animals in their care very seriously. But, Freckle was living locked in the spare bedroom, in order to keep her safe from the cats. Out-of-sight can sometimes truly mean out-of-mind.
It fell to me, then (of course), to remember to tend to Freckle's teeny-tiny needs. It isn't hard, actually. She doesn't eat very much. Her water dish needed refilling only every-other-day, once Pip disappeared. And, her cage needed cleaning only once a week, which I grudgingly performed. In true Ungrateful Rodent fashion, Freckle ceremoniously took large chunks out of my fingers every, single time, which made her even less appealing to me as a pet... if that is possible.
Strangely, I was beginning to understand how my father had felt about that rabbit, all those years ago.
My sleep patterns finally fell back into their normal routine. I no longer waited up to hear the scurry of little feet, or dreaded meeting the tiny furball under the sheets of my bed. (*shudder*)
The kids were finally sleeping again, too. Child Number Two and Wee Three had just acquired a brand new bunk bed, and were delighting in their new arrangement. It took a few nights, trying to figure out who would take possession of the top bunk, and who would sleep below... but as I had originally thought, Wee Three quickly decided that being closer to the floor was the better place to be. By her own reasoning: Monsters are Big. Therefore, if Monsters were to attack in the night, they would eat the child in the top bunk first, giving the child in the lower bunk a chance to escape.
Well, hey. It worked for me. And, it worked for Charlotte and Maude the cats, who were having a perplexing time trying to navigate the bed's ladder. At least they would have ONE of their little girls to sleep with at night.
All was peaceful.
In the wee hours of a morning more than two weeks later, I heard scuffles coming from the girlies' bedroom.
Cats, I thought. Drat that ladder... Maude must be lonesome for the Monster Bait child in the upper bunk. I said a silent prayer that the flailings of a small, fat cat would not be enough to rouse the girlies from their slumber. Because, once those two little stemwinders were awake, there was no going back-- whether it was two o'clock or ten o'clock in the morning, awake meant AWAKE, and there would be no peace to be had after that.
The scuffles continued.
"Muuuuuumm?" a small, muffled wail rang out, "Maude'n'Charlotte are playing in here, and they just woke us up."
"Never mind, sweetie. Is Maude trying to get into the top bunk? Maybe you could give her a boost, and then she'd settle down. I'll bet she just wants to snuggle with somebody. Boost her up, and go back to sleep."
The scuffles continued.
"Muuuuummm?" The child had clearly not yet roused herself from her bed. "It's Charlotte. I think she's brought a toy in here, and she's whacking it around on the floor."
Well, that explains it, I thought. I had just given the cats a fresh package of jumbo-sized pom-poms to play with on the kitchen floor the day before. They must have carried a couple of them upstairs in their mouths. Tomorrow night, I vowed, cats would be shooed into the basement for the night, toys and all.
"Don't worry," I called, not wanting to actually physically appear in the girls' bedroom, since my awake-ness would be seen as a signal that it was time to get up and start the day. "She's playing with a pom-pom. I bought them some yesterday. She'll get bored in a minute. Turn over, and go back to sleep."
There was a pause. (Which, I have learned, is usually a signal that all hell is about to break loose.)
"MUUUUUUMMMMM... Do the pom-poms you bought have little pink ears... and FEET???"
Charlotte had chosen that exact moment to pick her "new toy" up in her mouth, jumped up on Wee Three in the lower bunk, and plopped it down on my little girl's chest.
Charlotte cocked her head to one side, as if to request, "This needs new batteries???"
You can pretty much guess what happened next.
The whole wide world came tumbling down.
Charlotte and Maude went streaking from the room, as soon as the screaming started. My hapless husband was finally roused from his sleep, and went pealing into the girls' room, where he whisked the deceased corpse of Pip quickly out of sight. I was left to console... which was mightily hard to do, let me tell you, after all of the wonderful yarns we had spun about Pip the Adventurer in the Garden.
It was? not. nice.
Pip was buried under a lovely clump of lily-of-the-valley later that day. Her tiny body was perfect-- Charlotte had not acted in an even remotely Darwinian fashion. She had simply found a "new toy" that eventually ran out of energy, and died of exhaustion when the game went on for too long.
The girls have forgiven both their father and the cats. Strangely enough, though, they have had a much harder time forgiving Pip for the entire experience. They talk about Pip in heaven, and how she and George, our dearly departed ferocious monster, are likely having happy games of cat-and-mouse in the great green fields in the sky... But interestingly, they seem to have come to some sort of conclusion about the whole thing that encompasses the ideas of right, wrong, and consequence. Somehow, in their minds, they have decided that Pip plotted her escape, which was something that she should not have done. Her choice to "run wild" in the house, instead of showing up in one of our primitive hamster traps, was wrong of her... and she eventually faced her "consequence", much like a naughty child put in a (permanent!) kind of time out.
Pip has been personified to such a degree in our family, it doesn't even seem to occur to my children that she was an animal-- an extremely small-brained animal, at that-- who was simply following her most basic instinct.
I firmly believe that a there is one idea that pulsates in the mind of all hamsters.
No, not "food".
Not even "reproduction".
"That's what you get"