When my parents moved back to Korea from San Francisco with three children in tow, they were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get enough protein in our diet. In America we had been raised with plenty of milk, cheese, chicken, and beef, all of which were almost impossible to find, and/or prohibitively expensive in Korea at the time. My father acquired a pair of rabbits to remedy the situation. We have photographs of ourselves feeding carrots to Veronica and Brownie through the bars of their hutch, our eyes wide with childish wonder and delight. One morning my dad called us outside. “Kids, look! The rabbits are having a wedding!” We ran out expecting to see Veronica dressed in a long white gown and veil and Brownie in cutaway tails and an ascot. We were confused and disappointed to see that Brownie had merely mounted Veronica and was jerking furtively with one beady eye trained on the growing crowd of spectators witnessing the consummation of his marriage bed. Soon there was a hutch full of Brownies and Veronicas.
I think it was Brownie Sr. who was first served up for dinner one night. When it was discovered that we had just eaten one of our pet bunnies, bloodcurdling keening alternating with howling recriminations sent sonic shockwaves reverberating around the whole neighborhood. My father quietly gave away the rest of the rabbits to a delighted neighbor that very night and that was the end of that. My dad had learned an important lesson: you don’t give names to your food.
His next idea was to buy some chicks. Of course, this time no names would be given. But we had also by this time acquired a dog, to whom a name most definitely was given. My grandfather rather grandiosely dubbed him Sodeka, for Socrates, Descartes, and Kant. Despite his extravagant name, Sodeka was unceremoniously kept in the yard tethered to a chain, just as all Korean dogs are. Any wisdom Sodeka may have possessed was in realizing he knew nothing. Perhaps he was even wiser than his partial namesake, because unlike Socrates, he grasped that the pursuit of truth and virtue were pointless. He wasted no time mulling over the ethical ramifications of eating defenseless baby chicks too stupid to keep far enough away. Cogito ergo sum? How about: My growling stomach tells me I exist, and I therefore deduce that those senseless birds won’t in a minute. Screw Kant’s categorical imperative, he was hungry, and the chicks were right there! Sodeka died a few years later when he got into the trash and ate some chicken bones. In his dying act, he proved the existence of retributive justice in the world.
When we moved back to America we acquired an aquarium, which became home (and hospice) to a rapid succession of fish, fowl, and rodent. The many, many fish all too quickly succumbed to spectacularly depressing, protracted deaths, despite my fervent prayers and earnest ministrations. I would admit my patients to the hospital isolation ward: a pickle jar filled with saltwater and warmed with my rickety old swing arm desk lamp that served as a heat lamp. It never helped. They would continue to float on their sides or backs until they finally took their last gasp. Only once, the fish my little brother named Charlene Tilton seemed to be on the brink of a miraculous, unprecedented recovery. Every day I could see that her body was slowly righting itself until one glorious day she finally regained her vertical position. I was Florence Nightingale! Clara Barton! Hell, I was Mother Theresa! The day I planned to present Charlene Tilton with her discharge papers, I rushed home from school to find that the arm of the desk lamp had slipped and the bulb was barely a centimeter over the water. Charlene Tilton had been poached to death. Oh, the bitter, bitter tears I shed over each and every one of those fish.
The next ill-fated resident of that glass house of death lasted for only a few days. Butch was an impossibly adorable, fuzzy little chick, hatched in an incubator in my brother’s second grade classroom as a terribly misguided science project about the life cycle. The teacher blithely sent Butch and his siblings off to their deaths at the hands of a dozen or so second graders without so much as instructions on what to feed the poor doomed birds. Butch chirped piteously all day long and would only quiet down when we took him into our hands, where he’d nestle contentedly and immediately fall asleep. Every time my Dad caught us in the act, he’d make us put him back in the aquarium. He said with authority (having grown up on a farm, after all) that our very touch was toxic to the chick and that we would hasten his demise. Maybe he was right, or maybe Butch just got too cold in the aquarium. I really don’t know what we would have done with a rooster in the heart of suburban Arlington anyway.
Then there were the two gerbils named Pee Wee and Flea Bag. Once in awhile, I’d let them loose in the front yard. They would frolic about in the grass until I called for them. As soon as they heard their names, they’d come racing back to me. Maybe those brief interludes when they could feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their little rodent faces put forgiveness in their hearts, so that they returned to me even though I routinely forgot to feed them for days on end. Or maybe they made the cold, sober calculation that my negligent care was better than being eaten by a neighborhood cat:
“Yo, Flea Bag, that crazy chick’s calling us back. Come on, man, now’s our chance. Let’s do it! Let’s run for it, man!”
“Yeah! Let’s do this thing! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m fr–!”
“Awww sh*t, Flea Bag! There’s that damn cat, again. Damn it!! Come on, man, we gotta go back to the aquarium.”
“Dude, I’m so depressed.”
“Next time, man. Next time…”
Those gerbils never did make their escape. They lived to a ripe old age and ended their days in the aquarium. I sobbed when they died, belatedly regretting all the times I’d forgotten to feed them. My family tried to console me, assuring me that it was almost unheard of for gerbils to live as long as they did, but to this day I can’t think of them without pangs of guilt.