If You Give a Gerbil a Haircut

Anna Cattar

© Copyright 2021 by Anna Cattar

Photo of a young girl.

If you tell your mother what life was like at your dadís house, sheíll want to keep you quiet. Before you have time to say the word rape sheíll leap to comfort you. Soft deflective words will slip off her lips ďthe same thing happened to meĒ and ďI know it feels like he took something from you.Ē She wonít ask you why you are crying. She isnít going to understand that there are abuses that elude the law. She isnít going to understand that you arenít crying because he raped you.

If you tell the police your father raped you, theyíll want to know when, how, where, and how many times. Be prepared to name body parts that you arenít allowed to say in school. Youíll need to say words you've been trained your whole life to censor. You will find yourself desperate to tell them about much more than the rapes. Youíll want to tell them about the traumas that were more routine. The things that happened as easily and as often as brushing your teeth. Youíll want to upload the first twelve years of your life onto a flash drive and make them watch it. Youíll want them to understand that you arenít crying because he raped you.

If you are a child and you love animals, youíll ask for lots of pets. This is normal for many. The only difference is that your dad will actually get them for you. He will absolutely spoil you. Bunny rabbits, chinchillas, puppies, kittens - whatever you want. Heíll give you whatever you want. And when you are five years old, and you have lots of pets, you eventually forget about many of them. When you are five years old, you donít know that you need to start counting.

If you are five years old and your pet Pac-man frog and long-tailed lizard disappear from their tiny plastic containers, there isn't much of a loss. Sure, you take some time to look for them. You search through the foyer and in between the stacks of boxes. You look for a while, but your pea-sized first-grade mind is quickly distracted. When you are five years old, you donít understand that missing pets are dead pets.

If you are six years old and on a Thursday evening your dad buys you mice, you love them. On Friday, you try to give them a bath. And then you try to save them. You cry when their noses drop to one side of their small, fluffy-white bodies. Dad ignores you. With your tiny, lonely fingers you peel back the softest earth you can find in your backyard and bury their lifeless bodies. You have no concept of what is happening. How would you know it is wrong? You know it is sad. You know it hurts. But how are you supposed to know that these perfect creatures would have lived happy lives if they hadnít chanced upon your dadís hands...your hands? When you are six years old, you donít understand that anything held underwater will drown.

If you are seven years old, and you have a pet gerbil, you try to give him a haircut. You take the shiny, metal bathroom scissors, as dad told you to, and go to trimming. The small, brown, hairy-tailed creature sits on a bar stool while you work away. Clipping and clipping. It only takes a few seconds for your dazzled eyes to realize that the gerbilís skin is transparent! How incredible! Clear skin! You can see the deep red of his muscle tissue, and the blue maps of veins tracing his body. So you cut and you cut. And you mutilate that poor gerbil because when you say, ďlook it has clear skin!Ē Dadís response is, ďyou should see what else is under his fur.Ē And you do. It will take you years to realize that with no talent and no skill, you skinned your gerbil alive. You skinned him alive. But you are too young to understand that now. So when you bury your gerbil the next day, and dad tells you your gerbil must have had a heart defect, you believe him. You donít understand that death operates on cause and effect. When you are seven years old, you donít understand that you are the cause.

If you are eight years old and ask for snakes, Dad brings you to the store to buy 5 balled pythons. When you return from Momís house a week later, you marvel at the creatures. How they froze, bodies erect, like in their last moments they faced death and had been ready to strike. With your gaze locked on them, you fumble with the heat lamp to switch it off, and you pull back the mesh lid, your face completely numb. You reach in and pull out the biggest one. You had named him Red. Redís scales are crisp now, but he doesnít stink. You look at him, place him back down, and you do not look again. You will never forget the way those 5 crunchy snakes stared you down and the way you focused curiously, heartlessly at the hollowing figures that remained of their lives. When you are eight years old, you donít understand that you arenít supposed to stare down death with blank curiosity.

If you are lucky and life chooses to be merciful, your memories sometimes seem temporary. And sometimes, you forget years at a time. Sometimes you forget your childhood best friend, a small puppy named Chloe. You forget the butterflies, the lizards, the dogs, the cats, the bluebird who mistakenly flew into your window. You forget lots of things. But, even when you are lucky and life is merciful, you donít forget the first time you realized you were a murderer.

If you are 11 years old and you ask Dad for a bearded dragon, he gets you one. The small tank sits in your otherwise unoccupied bedroom. You name him Diver. He loves to run. You feed him mealworms and reptile pellets and he has a stone-colored water dish, too shallow for him to drown. He has a night lamp that glows red and a day lamp that shines white, just like the pythons from the old house. And you sit, criss-cross applesauce in front of his tank, and watch him. You think about what it must be like, to be in such a small space, all the time. There are no ins and outs for Diver. You promise to protect him. You promise to keep him safe. You think that he must feel very loved. Days later Thursday comes so you go to Moms for a week. You tell Diver ďI love you. Iíll miss you and Iíll see you next ThursdayĒ because the time you forgot to tell Chloe bye was the last time you saw her. Dad reminds you of this fact infrequently, but enough. Enough to never forget again.

You go about your week with Mom. You brag about your new pet. You incessantly research what it is like to care for a bearded dragon. You obsess over your love for this tiny creature. You obsess over your determination to do everything right. To keep him perfectly. And you bust through the doors of Dadís house the next Thursday, unusually excited. You go to the fridge to grab the mealworms, peel back the lid on the container, and find it full. Your stomach sinks because you know what that means. Dad hasnít fed him. The container is full of dried, black, dead crisps where there were once active, fleshy, cream-colored worms. Dad was on the back porch, smoking a cigarette. You cross through the living room and approach the bottom of the staircase, ready to go find Diver in whatever state he may be. And then, instead, you commit murder. You decide you donít want to see what you might find in your bedroom. And so you donít go up there. In fact, it is almost like everyone forgets that Diver ever existed. When Mom asks you about him the next week you tell her an elaborate story about how he escaped. You wish he had escaped. You would trade your life for him to have escaped.

One night, weeks later, sleeping on the couch, you need an extra blanket. With your father asleep, you thoughtlessly climb the stairs to your room, swing open your bedroom door, flick on the light and grab the floral blue fleece blanket on top of your bed. You look over to your left. At the glass prison on the floor. The lamp is off and you realize that the bulb must have blown. You look at Diver, perched on his log, arms stiff, mouth open. He has no eyes. And his tail is broken off his crumbly body. This time you donít need to pick him up to know what happened. You switch the light off, close the door to your bedroom and you go about your night. When you are eleven years old, you finally understand that you killed him.

When you are eighteen years old, you wonít believe you survived. You wonít understand how you survived. Your life was always on a timer in your mind. You were waiting for Dad to find you crumbly, stiff, and breaking. Instead, youíll find yourself. Youíll find yourself in a closet-sized room telling a strange woman how, when, and where your father raped you. Sheíll need specifics. An exact time, if you can remember 12 years back. Youíll find yourself desperate to tell the police the stories of what broke you. The stories that werenít illegal. The stories that youíll never forgive yourself for. But when you explain to them, what it is like to give a gerbil a haircut, the only response they muster is ďthe things he did to you in that bed must have been horrible.Ē

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