Life of Loki

by Laura Bernstein-Machlay

Loki and His Brothers
First there were dozens, skittering on elfin feet in a tank in the back
of some store more than an hour from home. When, I wonder, did
local shops stop keeping gerbils? Near the front window are bunnies
and kittens and puppies, all the beasties of pet mills. Toward the sides
there’s the stink of reptile, scaled heads turning with our footsteps,
staring with lidded, alien eyes. We keep walking—the enclosure with
its fuzzy, be-tailed occupants banished to this nook off a bathroom,
beside a desk cluttered with papers and baggies of something—call
it birdseed.

It’s gotta be gerbils, right? I’d asked Daughter-Celia the day before.
No hamsters? God help us, a rat? Nope. So we’re here, this place. And
since it’s also got to be siblings of the same gender, we take three
brothers from the latest litter. Though it’s tough to know for sure when
they’re this little, says Pet-Shop-Lady as she grips each of the boys,
spreads the kicking back legs with her pointer finger and thumb,
and peers closely. If one turns out female, we’ll take the babies off your
hands, she says, and I think about the fat snakes coiled in the other
room, their self-satisfied grins—lumps moving slowly through the
lengths of them—and know the fates of the unwanted babies. Don’t
grab ’em by the tail, says Pet-Shop-Lady. They sometimes pop off, just
like that. Pop, she repeats, enunciating both Ps. Wouldn’t want you to
take a fright.

Eleven-year-old Celia, studying mythology at her weird Waldorf
school, names the two identical boys, the stripy brown boys, Romulus
and Remus, which becomes prophetic. The mythical R and R, twins
suckled by a she-wolf, founders of ancient Rome, ended their days
in mutual murder. And while Celia’s R and R are congenial-enough
roommates, apparently one can’t survive without the other—after
a year, when Romulus drops dead of who knows what, Remus follows
less than a month later. Loki, however, white as a star, goes on
and on.

Loki and Me
Scurrying thing, pricker teeth. So busy busy he is. Digging tunnels
leading nowhere. Scritch-scratching, gnawing at the glass walls—he
never learns. But, the passion of it all. Chew chewing, jaw swinging
away, little metronome sped up and up again. The squeal, screech,
squeal, screech of the wheel, iambic as a poem, as a meditation that
echoes behind my eyes long after Loki’s skipped to the next item on
his list of activities.

And, such a bother. Who wanted the thing in the first place, the extra
chore? Because like every parent everywhere, the onus of his care
falls to me. But Daughter-Celia implores, she beseeches. Just this, she
says, something of her own to love her. Because I have no siblings, she
tells me.

You have the dog and cat, I say.

The dog and cat love you best.

I feed them, I say.

Husband-Steven shrugs, tells me, You decide, and wanders off to
fuss with his fish tank.

And more than the pink, pinhead eyes, more than the reek of the
habitat no matter how often it’s cleaned—gerbils shit on everything—
it’s the cage that makes me squirm. I don’t like it, I tell Steven,
how helpless he is. How he’s trapped for life in this little box.

It’s a 55-gallon tank, says Steven.

But, the weight of it, of Loki—tiny weight, but weight nevertheless—
claws at me sometimes.

Steven says, The other animals depend on us too. And Celia, as a baby.

I dismiss the fish—they’re Steven’s mission. And I want to tell him
that Dog-Donna and Cat-Aashina look me in square in the eye. That,
if they had to choose, they’d probably pick us, this blue food bowl
in the kitchen corner, these fuzzy socks dragged from the laundry
bin and scattered underfoot. I want to say, look at the teensy, rodent
face, the teensy hands holding the seed, how he’d fit in my palm like
a little doll if I cared to hold him, if he cared to let me—how easy to
press too hard, squeeze ’til the quickbeat-heart, the wristwatch ticktickticktick,
just up and quits.

But Steven’s already moved on to another of his hundred obligations,
so I can’t admit how I hated those days when Daughter-Celia
was a new baby—tiny mewling thing, arms and legs flailing uselessly.
Me buried in postpartum decrepitude, afraid to touch her, afraid to
carry the seven pounds of human being for fear of dropping her—
splat!—on the floor. I can dress her in anything, I once sobbed to Steven
during the early, the bad, months. Any clown suit the neighbors
pass on to us. And she can’t stop me. She can’t say no.

So, later, when Celia says no to the rat, and please with her whole
body, I say yes. And we bring them home and Celia comes to me,
opens her fingers and there’s Loki—little white face, panic climbing
him in waves. And, look, says Celia, and pets his head with one careful
pinky. Isn’t he simply perfect?

Loki and Cat-Aashina.
Just the stare, taut as cable. The watching through glass—years’
worth of watching. For the break that never comes. There’s the stillness,
muscles coiled, set to spring. And appetite. That’s all.

Loki and Steven
It’s a 55-gallon tank, says Husband-Steven. If you and I melted to liquid,
we’d both fit in there, no problem.

What scenario has us both liquefied? I ask. Are you talking ray guns?
But Steven’s returned to his project, one among many that layer his
days—task overlapping task—so he’s always in a rush, always recalculating
the catalog in his head. I say, Relax a minute. But no go. He
says, Maybe later. When he’s got time. And I say never mind, because
that’s the way of long marriages—you take your partner’s crazy and
hope he does the same.

When he can, Steven loves building habitats, inclusive-as-possible
ecosystems—aquariums, terrariums, his various classrooms through
the years, a charming, weedy Buddha garden in our yard—The wildflowers
are part of the flow, he tells me. Worlds that start and end with
him, but he’s a benevolent leader, so it’s all right. When we met, he
maintained six fish tanks filled each to the brim. Though now he’s
down to one—I’ve thwarted his desires, I fear—day and night, flits
of shine and color twine in and out of plastic plants and mythical
seascapes.

When Loki and his brothers come to us, Steven sets to work like a
locomotive whistling down the track. There’s the research phase, the
chopping-branches-off-the-apple-tree-out-back-and-baking-them
phase. It’s good for their incisors, says Steven. Keeps ’em from growing
down and around and drilling through their faces.

You’re making that up, I say.

Google it, says Steven.

And sure enough Loki and his brothers chew all the bark off the
branches in an afternoon, so Steven has to bake more. Steven buys
Timothy hay because it makes Loki happy. He buys aspen shavings
for bedding—All the better for digging, he says.

But, Five whole inches of it? Daughter-Celia asks.

That’s how they like it in the wild, says Steven.

But I never see them, says Celia. They’re always burrowing—into
their secret lives, away from Celia who wants to love them, from the
aching gaze of Cat-Aashina, who dreams her bloody dreams with
eyes wide open.

So the apple sticks are propped exactly right, the running wheel
suspended from the screen-roof like a carnival ride. There’s cardboard
in a series of lean-tos, boxes arranged in steps leading to food
bowls. Make ’em work for it, says Steven.

Five years later, Steven piles travel cage, wheel, water bottle, all
the related tchotchkes, leftover hay and bedding and food, into the
55-gallon tank. He arranges them just so, snaps a picture, and offers
the kit and caboodle on Craigslist for twenty bucks, or best offer.

Loki and Celia (and Me)
There’s not a lot of Loki and Celia, not after the first weeks, months
at most. Instead there’s me nagging. Did you clean the tank? Did you
feed the gerbils? Feed Loki, now. Scrub the tank. It’s foul. Years of this.
Except when I’m tired of fretting and just do it myself.

Return it to the store, already, says a friend when I complain about
the unfairness of this arrangement. But, no—there’s the sad thought
of Loki as Snake-Chow. So back to fussing for me.

Years later, I ask sixteen-year-old Celia about Loki and his brothers.

I wanted them to sit in my lap while I did homework. To come when I
called. I wanted them to love me best of all, she says.

I love you best of all, I say, and Celia rolls her eyes.

But they only avoided my hand, she says. I’m pretty sure I warned
Celia how such tiny creatures, so seemingly insignificant, might have
priorities beyond our paltry human longings. But maybe I kept that
to myself. And it doesn’t matter, anyway.

This is while we’re driving, long stretch of Woodward Avenue I
navigate daily to and from Celia’s school in the suburbs. Celia says,
Loki came out of the tunnels after his brothers died. He started running
on the wheel, and sometimes he’d watch Aashina through the glass while
she stared at him. I guess he was lonely. I think of Loki’s mammalian
knowledge of suckling mother’s milk, of sleeping body-to-body for
warmth, for comfort—no sex for Loki—and I wonder what loneliness
felt like to something so little. But of course, he was life-sized to
himself, and who am I to judge?

Then I remember the clock ticking inexorably—less than two years
’til Celia—daughter of my sloppy, sloshing heart—leaves Steven and
me behind and skips off to college. I think of the silence to come,
occupying my days with Dog-Donna at the front windows, watching
the cars, the neighbors, the strangers buzz by. Perhaps like Loki, I’ll
channel my sad, my lonely into something constructive—I’ll buy a
stationary bike and go at it like gangbusters. But more likely I’ll simply
hook myself to an intravenous Valium pump and sleep through
the first, awful, months—do doctors still prescribe Valium? Klonopin,
then.

I felt bad for Loki, says Celia. But he still wouldn’t let me near. So typical!
Celia’s just gone through a breakup and isn’t too happy with the
world. She shrugs and returns to tap tapping at her phone, Celia the
drummer, her thumbs the sticks.

You’re always welcome to hang out with me, I say, but Celia doesn’t
respond.

What did you like most about Loki?

Celia thinks, her head twitches to the side, tsunami of hair falling
half across her face. His nose and feet, she says. When he’d sit up and
smell the air like he thought something was going to change, though it
never did. Like he kept hoping. And Celia becomes Loki, curls her hands
into paws at her chest, lifts her nose toward the roof of the car and
sniffs twice. Then it’s back to her thumbs on the keypad, Woodward unfurling
before me like an antique scroll, road signs newly inscrutable.

Loki and the Vet
The small-animal vet, the one I drive nearly an hour to reach, says, A
mass in the belly. Look, she points to the bloody, protruding lump. She
says, Probably diabetes too, because he’s drinking so much water.

Gerbils get diabetes? I ask. It seems unfair—they have so little, little
time, little power to affect the world. Surely they should be exempt
from such insidious human maladies. The vet shifts Loki to her
other hand and presses a bit.

And so skinny, she says. And guilt floods my veins—did I not harangue
Celia into feeding him often enough? Should I have stepped
in even more? A finicky beastie, Loki didn’t much like his food—but
why eat this corn kernel and not that other? Why this green seed and
not the brown? Hard to know, then, when the bowl was low enough.

The vet says, We can do tests. There are vitamins that might help for a
while. I once did surgery on a rat.

But Loki’s nearly five years old, I say. Isn’t that ancient for gerbils?

Old enough, she says.

It’ll be painless, right? I ask.

He’ll feel the prick of the belly shot, that’s all. Otherwise you’re looking
at days, even weeks of slow decline.

Eighty-five bucks later, it’s done. When I go to leave the office, the
vet and her stalwart assistant each come to hug me, wish me comfort
in my loss. Thank you, I say over their shoulders, because they expect
it.

The commemorative heart arrives by mail five days later—containing
two rows of Loki’s paw prints, tiny feet pressed into plaster.
Daughter-Celia looks at it. Look at the little toes, she says, and puts it
down. And that’s that.

We did our best, I say, but when I turn around, I’m alone in the
room.

And since it’s their job, the days and weeks pass in an orderly
sort of way. And because Loki mattered after all—in the way that
all things matter—I sometimes pass through the cloud surrounding
Celia’s bedroom and, at the very edge of hearing, catch the faintest
hint of wheel screech, of stritch-scratch on glass.

But it’s the kind of sound you only hear on rainy afternoons, or in
the red wash of twilight, so that’s all right.