Derbtown

Heavy Petting

September 20, 2012

Multiple Pages
Heavy Petting

In 1957 the Australian sci-fi writer Bertram Chandler—probably the only person ever to have envisaged a future Australian Empire—published a short story titled The Cage. The human passengers and crew of an interstellar liner are marooned on an unknown planet with a hot, humid atmosphere loaded with fungi spores that eat away all their clothes, wristwatches, and other possessions—even dental fillings—but spare living flesh.

Aliens from a nearby civilization—also hitherto unknown to humans—capture four of the castaways. They are taken away to the aliens’ home planet.

The aliens have taken the naked humans to be a species of local fauna. They install their four captives in a zoo, in a glassed-in cage with an interior climate precisely reproducing that of the other planet.

The captives ponder the question: How to persuade the captors that they are rational beings? Create artifacts? They spend three days weaving baskets from the vegetation in their cage. The aliens take no notice. As one captive points out, there are animals that make artifacts—beavers, the bower bird.

Then they find a small, mouse-like creature sharing their living space. They take him up as a pet and fashion a small cage for him, feeding him scraps.

After three days of that, the aliens suddenly free them, apologize profusely, and arrange a spaceship to rescue the other castaways. But what, asks one baffled captive, made the aliens realize their captives were rational beings?

“There are some doors man was never meant to open.”

Replies the group’s leader: “Only rational beings put other beings in cages.”

So we do, so we do.

I was sitting in the lounger with my laptop, idly browsing the Internet when my daughter Nellie came down from her bedroom. Nellie, age 193/4, is the apple of my eye and a dear girl in innumerable ways, but even a doting daddy cannot help but notice that she is a wastrel with money. No sooner does she acquire a few dollars than she is overcome with the impulse to spend them on the most useless item she can find in the local malls.

Faddy foodstuffs account for a lot of the expenditure: Greek yogurt, black soy milk, and vegetarian bacon (?). The family refrigerator is clogged with this stuff. Her room is likewise overflowing with items of high-teen-appeal inutility: electronic gizmos, fitness contraptions, decorative tchotchkes, clothes, clothes, clothes, and shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes, shoes.

When she came down the stairs that evening, I could see she was holding something in both hands, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

“Dad, I want you to meet Ike. Dad, Ike; Ike, Dad.”

Ike, it quickly became apparent, is a snake. To be zoologically precise, he is a ball python. On this introductory occasion, Nellie had him wrapped around one wrist and nestled in the other palm.

“That’s great, honey. Hi there, Ike! How ya doin’?”

No, that is not what I said. What I said was more along the lines of: “Are you out of your mind, you stupid bimbo nitwit? Your poor mother will freak out. She HATES snakes.”

Mom did much of her growing up in southwest China, where there are lots of snakes, several of the unfriendly sort. (Mrs. Derbyshire took her revenge on the suborder Serpentes during a 2001 trip to China.) I was raised in England, which has only one species of snake, the humble and harmless adder.

Nellie assured me that Ike is properly housed. He dwells in her bedroom in a glass-walled terrarium (I am reading from the box: seems to me it should be “herpetarium”) that came complete (I told you this girl knows how to spend money) with energy-focusing light fixtures, black-light heat bulbs, “Bark Blend Premium Reptile Bedding,” humidifiers, “rock den hiding place”—the works, courtesy of Central Aquatics (A Division of Central Garden and Pet) of Franklin, Wisconsin. Well, at least we’re buying American.

What does Ike eat? You’d be better off not knowing, but I’ll tell you anyway. He eats mice: live mice.

I was reluctant to believe this until a couple of days later when Nellie came home from the pet store with a mouse. It was a cute little pink-and-white thing in a box that was a masterpiece of origami, folded up so that there was just a small rectangular opening at each end. The mouse was poking his wee pink nose out of one of these holes.

“Nellie, you’re not going to…”

“Sure. Ike has to eat, doesn’t he?”

This is the lass who eleven years ago had begged me to spare the life of a rat. A filthy gray evil-eyed rat! And now she wants to feed cute white mice to her pet snake. They grow up so fast!

I chose not to be present for the feeding. My son, who I am afraid rather enjoys that sort of thing, gave me a full report. “Ike just lay there dead-still while the mouse sniffed around. Then, when he got close enough, Ike pounced—grabbed him with his fangs. Then he coiled ’round him, squeezed him ’til he was still. Then he got the mouse’s head in his mouth and started sucking him in. It took ages.”

We fell to speculating about whether the mice in the pet store know. Do they scope out each customer who comes into the store, squeaking out to one another: “This one wants a pet mouse! Please let him choose me!” Or: “That one’s a snake owner! Not me! Puh-leeze, not me!” Did they have a whole mouse theology in which the mouse who’d lived a good life got taken up into pet-hood, while the delinquent mouse ended up as snake lunch?

There are some doors man was never meant to open. There lies Ike, in his “rock den hiding place,” out of sight most of the time. “He’s nocturnal,” Nellie explains. And still digesting the mouse, I guess.

I’m not sure Bertram Chandler had it right. I can see asserting our mastery over the brute creation, but the way to do it is in a fair contest—by hunting them, then eating them. But shutting them up in a glass cage, even one equipped with (reading from the box again) Two (2) 8.5” Reflective Dome Light Fixtures?

Should Ike trap some smaller creature and fashion a wicker cage for him, or if he were to scratch out Pythagoras’s theorem with his fangs in his Bark Blend Premium Reptile Bedding, I’ll know him for a fellow rational being, a man and a brother, and let him out to roam free. Until then, the main thing is to keep him out of Mom’s sight.

Image of ball python courtesy of Shutterstock

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