The Feast of the Moon
By Brian Wapole
All rights reserved
I don’t remember much from my youth beyond that I liked clinging to my mother’s fur. I would push against her, belly-full, dizzy with lilac, dreaming of even more food, listening to the gentle roil behind her skin while she told us stories she heard as a youngster. But my memories are of lilac…more so of full bellies. How else?
If I hadn’t been snatched by humans I would’ve recalled more stories from my youth…maybe. I think the stories must’ve been lessons about how to live alone, how to make a burrow, what to do when your offspring leave, what to do when you are called by Death, what to expect when living with humans. Hawks. When I was on my own, I missed not hearing stories about hawks. I’m sure those were both exciting and useful.
Most of the animals I knew reserved their sharpest fear for hawks. I can see that. My story has a hawk in it, but cats and snakes make me forget I was born to seek honor and danger. My mate once asked why I feared snakes more than hawks.
“How often have you seen our hawk?’’
“More times than two.”
“Right. But you never see snakes. That’s why I fear them more,” I replied.
It’s not that I don’t fear hawks. It’s like saying one human is larger than the next; what is it to a hamster which human is larger? So to with snakes and hawks: they can both kill us faster than Death can call us.
I told my offspring stories about hawks, digging burrows, finding water in summer and of the adventures I unearthed while forging for seeds and nuts. But I didn’t tell them what to do when their offspring left. When it happened to me I learned something worthy of a real story: Living with snakes and hawks is not so hard.
Since I knew I was going to tell the tale of my life, I’ve chewed and stored, buried and burrowed down this vine of days, eyes closed, revisiting the stories of my life. My earliest memories, scattered like the choice Timothy seeds after a storm, are always the same: being warm, but wanting to be warmer; being full, but striving to feel my belly ache with fullness; being close to my mother, but wanting to be closer still. Inside her, if I could manage it. Maybe I was happiest in that first burrow!
After the humans snatched us, I wanted more than an endless cache of chestnuts to remember the stories of my youth. I vowed that I would recall everything that happened to me. My memory for stories, the stories of my life, was my mother’s greatest gift.
I lived with humans for more moons than two before escaping back to the prairie. It was there that I met my best friend, Shrew. He taught me the rhythms of the grassy knoll we shared, even though he considered hamsters useless; outside of nature, fit for humans. He was unimpressed with the marvels humans invented and rolled his eyes at the stories I told of them.
Shrew also did not know or care about winter. I told him that he’d prefer a hawk’s talons around his neck to the North Wind’s icy grip and he paused.
When a shrew is still, it is as if the land and everything on it is still and the sky has stopped shifting. I fought the urge to look overhead for an owl, so open I felt there on our little knoll.
“But how does all this help me find Timothy seeds,” he asked.
I opened my mouth, but he continued,
“If we talk any longer the seeds will be gone. Perhaps hamsters with their winters and their what-not stuffed in pouches can talk about how the Sun might leave and never come back. Perhaps crows bring them acorns because hamsters ask such important questions. But shrews must gather them now.”
Shrew had a poor memory (worse than mine!) for all his good sense. He would forage over the same ground more times than two before moving on.
One time, Shrew came upon a filbert, which he prized like I did blackberries, but only the husk remained. Probably a squirrel or chipmunk got there first. He tossed it aside and began his frenetic jumping here/jumping there foraging, alighting on the filbert again. As excited as he was the first time, he scooped it up, and as crestfallen as before, cast it aside when it proved worthless. I got an idea.
I collected the filbert; waited a moment; then put it back in the same spot.
“Look there!” I said.
He performed the same hope and despair dance as before. I picked it up. Waited. Then repeated my fun. Again he sprang at the filbert, and again threw it down, dejected. I did this until it became more tiresome than picking nettles from my fur. Shrew never thought it was the same filbert – never tired of being happy and sad.
It occurred to me that hamsters are like shrews. Not with filberts, of course, but with stories. The stories that my mother loved…how do I know they were good? As far as I know, hamsters don’t tell good stories. I’ve never heard one. Maybe my mother heard one good story when she was young and each day she woke up thinking, “I’m going to hear a story today!” And it never happened. Shrew probably found a filbert once – how else would he know to be excited about finding another one – and the memory became tastier than the nut. I think for a hamster a story is a filbert. I’ve been looking for the forgotten stories of my youth ever since.
We huddled close for warmth. We were full. There were more than two of us – my brothers and sisters. It was to be the last day when being warm was my only concern. From that day on I carried more thoughts than two. Like foraging. And hawks. And humans, burrows and bedding. And telling this story. But at that moment there was only being warm – and I was that.
Then the oddest thing happened: I felt my mother slide up. Hamsters don’t go up. We are not frogs or grasshoppers who spring up faster than any animal I’ve ever seen. But that is what my mother was doing.
I remember like the scent of Dogwood blossoms each thought I had when my mother was rising into the air as fast as a grasshopper:
“She is rising to stretch…No, she is rising to groom…No, she is rising to disgorge her pouches…No, an owl has her…No, there is a giant mole pushing her from underneath…No, she is flying!”
And that is when I realized that I, a hamster, was flying, clinging to her belly fur like I held the last acorn before winter. A human had snared us with his soft talons.
While my brothers and sisters scouted further each day, I knew nothing of the world beyond the ground surrounding our mother.
I didn’t see how risking my life would make me warmer or my belly tighter, so I stayed near our mother and our burrow.
My brother was concerned for me. He signed to me the evening before the humans appeared.
“You must see the world,” he said. “You won’t believe what is out there.”
He then described, pretty badly, I would learn later, what were rocks. He called them “hard, hairless, mother bellies.” Wet new leaves were “green bedding.” Ants were “walking seeds.” He had snuffled along maybe the length of a fallen Sycamore and called it “seeing the world.” I thought him reckless for doing it, but also a true hamster, living with honor and danger.
Did my brother live long enough to discover that the world ends in water and that not even a skylark has seen the end of the water? I doubt it; he was not clinging to my mother as I was, flying like a finch.
My mother and I were placed in a shadowed flying-burrow. Flying-burrows were the first remarkable human inventions I encountered. Unlike a hamster’s burrow, you can not dig out of them. They can’t be made larger. They don’t silt-up gradually. Humans can make them as dark as a hamster burrow or as clear as the wind. This one, with its high brown walls, blocked sunlight like a hamster burrow. The ceiling was impossible to reach, yet the humans covered it and uncovered it as fast as thought.
They gave us leaves and Pine chips to forage through, but I clung to my mother. Later, she told me that the sky cleaved the ceiling and gave us food, and I believed her. But it was the humans. They snatched us. They created the flying-burrow. They found the woodchips and the food. They opened the ceiling. When you live in the world, the sky gives you water; the trees and grass give you food. When you live with humans they give you both. That’s how it goes.
While we were in the flying-burrow heavy footsteps thudded around us, the bellows of humans filled our heads, and their odors hung in the air. When humans forage they rip up the prairie floor and then shake it to see what falls out. I pushed against my mother; although she stayed as still as possible, I could feel her trembling. She said nothing. A hamster will not – not ever – make a sound when in danger.
“If today is my last day,” a hamster thinks, “when Death leads me on my final forage, then I will go in silence, in honor.”
The ceiling parted, sunlight shocking us, and a familiar odor twitched my whiskers. I felt my mother bumped on her other flank. It was my sister! The humans closed the ceiling and I sensed the burrow flying with a swaying motion. I was happier than warmth to know my sister was with us, safe. I had already put aside the thought that we were trapped in a swirl of utter mystery and that my mother was more frightened than I’d ever seen her.
Instead, I thought, “We are with my mother, therefore we are safe.” Perhaps that’s how all youngsters think.
I do not know what happened to the rest of my brothers and sisters. I tried to recall their odors, but couldn’t. Yet, the happiness that my sister’s odor gave me made me curious.
“Why didn’t not smelling my brothers make me sad?” I thought. It’s not as if my sister and I were close.
That was the first time I realized there was more to living than being warm and fed. It was a surprising thought. But I have learned truths more than two down this vine of days that are more surprising still. They seem to drop on my head like walnuts whenever I think I have learned them all.
I thought that the burrow was flying, but a human carried it. We rocked against the waves in the sky like we were riding upon the back of a goose. A goose that had lately learned to fly…and then forgot once we were airborne. I was glad of the total darkness, although the smell of fear from my sister and mother was making me nauseous.
I told myself a story about a goose and hamster. All I remember of it was the hamster scolding the goose,
“You fly through the sky like a squirrel roots through a burrow.”
I laughed out-loud until my sister and mother hissed at me. I concentrated on imagining what the world looks like soaring above the tallest Oak – that was the other part of the story.
“What is it to fly like a hawk?” I thought.
They have wings to soar higher than the wind itself. Eyes to see the sky entire or the red of a fallen leaf in summer’s twilight. While hamsters forage for honor, hawks use these wings, these eyes, to hunt for hamsters – the wonders of the world scudding by unseen, like dull clouds.
Like a hawk alighting, our burrow came to rest amidst a riot of acrid human odors; they were more upsetting than feeling my mother’s trembling through my skin.
And then the sound surrounded us, penetrating our bodies. Ask an animal who has lived with humans and he will tell you where he was the first time he heard the human roar.
It was deep and rumbling yet rose in pitch like a kestrel in pursuit – falling like an immense slab of frozen water crumbling down a waterfall.
The roar was louder than any predator’s. It filled my head and then my body. It was teeth-rattling.
I’ve heard a fox bark into my burrow. I’ve heard the wind howl in the night so near I thought the ground had erupted and the voice of the first wolf had pushed its way into the crisp air. Yet, these human odors and numbing roars were more terrifying still.
We huddled together in the night-black of the little flying-burrow when loud claps, like branches heavy with ice cracking off a tree, startled us. We began flying, but not as before. I didn’t learn until later, but we were gliding across the world in a human invention (smooth, but loud as a falling wall of ice) amid smelly humans who now decided if we should live or die.
Hunkering next to my mother in the dark flying-burrow, surrounded by fear and humans, I wanted it to be said that I was a hamster of old. A hamster born to danger. Like my brothers and sisters.
“I am a hamster,” I said aloud. “How long do you want me to stay afraid? They may think they control my fate, but they are wrong.”
My mother stayed silent: the hamster way. My sister hissed at me. We started quarreling as if we were back in our father’s burrow.
“Be quiet, or I will tell the humans to eat you first,” she said.
“Why, when I am not afraid to die, would I be afraid of humans?”
“Ohh,” she said, with no patience for me. “The rest of us know so much more about the world than you do. You’ve never been away from the burrow without clinging to Mother…not once. I’ve smelled humans before. All of us have. But not Mother’s Second Belly. You wouldn’t know a human from a vole.”
She paused and then added in a whisper,
“They smell like skunks and coyotes and foxes; they eat hamsters…and they will eat you first.”
Remember how elated I was to recognize my sister’s odor? That it made be happier than a full belly? Full bellies do not last and neither did that feeling. No happiness lasts. Not warmth. Not happy to be running. Not happy to be groomed. And not happy to see another hamster. Even the Moon gets eaten before long.
To keep my courage in my pouch, as my father would say, I told a story about the humans letting us run free again. Death summoned them. The humans cowered and cried. They gave us more food than we could stuff inside our pouches and bellies. Then they brought us back to my father’s burrow. Then they hunted down all the predators in the prairie hoping that Death would forgive them for offending his favorite hamster.
Then Death said,
“It is not up to me to decide your fate; find an animal who lives with honor and danger and ask him.”
And then the humans were really frightened because, of course, they know nothing of animals, less about danger…less still of honor. But in their moment of panic I showed them how a hamster lives his last day.
“Here I am,” I said, stepping forward, whiskers twitching the wind.
And they shouted,
“Here is the most honorable of animals! Please help us. Please tell us we have done enough to prevent Death from taking us.”
“Poor wretches,” I replied, “You live forever, yet learn so little. You ought to be asking, Have we done enough so Death will want to take us? But I take pity on you: Be free of your guilt.”
Turning to Death I added,
“Let the humans keep their noisy lives which they cling to like mother’s fur. Take me in their stead if a life is required. And to show there are no bad feelings…allow them to eat my sister.”
That was what I was thinking as the flying burrow scudded through the dark before the dawn of my new life.
Trapped in the flying-burrow, unable to track the shadows, I couldn’t tell if it was twilight for the world or just for me. The ceaseless drone of their flying invention dulled my senses until I thought I was dreaming I was asleep waking to a dream. Within this fog I yet knew to prepare myself for death: I told myself a story.
As I started talking, words flew to me from beyond the endless waters – a likely place for stories to live. Although I had no idea which word would appear, one always did. Soon, words stopped appearing and the story itself sprouted as if it were happening right then. All I needed to do was describe what I saw. By the time the story was over I believed it myself.
It would be the first story I told my own offspring:
The Feast of the Moon
More days than two ago when the world was as young as you are now, when mountains where hills and hills were mounds and trees were tall grass, hamsters played in the bright sunlight. Neither did they forage, nor dig. So joyful and fierce were they that all of the animals created by the Sun competed for their company.
The Sun grew envious of hamsters and sent Hawk to teach them to never steal the attention that was His.
Bluejay and Sparrow saw Hawk first and sang the alarm, but the hamsters paid no heed.
“Why should we scatter like mice? We are the favorites of the Sun; He will protect us.”
But Hawk swooped in among the frolicking hamsters and speared one with his talons, then reached down and tore the hamster’s flesh with his hooked beak. The hamster’s torn body released a hideous cry – as if the Hawk’s talons were scraping across the white rocks by the river. The cry flew into Hawk’s open maw, down his gullet, and into his belly.
Whenever you hear the screech of a hawk you hear the cry of the first hamster to be killed by one. And from that time forth hamsters stayed as far away from the Sun – and hawks – as possible.
As summers melted away, hamsters more than two died, joining First Hamster to forage in the night sky, finding little to eat. He promised them he would find an endless cache of food.
Hamster visited the Sun while he was bathing in the waters beyond the edge of the world. Hamster congratulated him on being the creator of so many honorable animals.
“But it is a shame you are not capable of making a child yourself, since even the crawlies can do so.”
“What!? I can make a child anytime I want.”
“Oh, well, maybe you are afraid she will be brighter than yourself and steal your honor.”
“Nonsense! I will make a child and place her in the night sky. She will keep watch over the animals for me while I am sleeping.”
The Sun gave birth to the Moon and set her in the night sky to ripen. And when the Moon had grown big enough, the hamsters of old began nibbling on her.
Never, while alive, had they eaten so well and slept with so full a belly. Every night they ate a little more, and by day they enjoyed the sleep of peaceful wonder, until the Moon shone in their bellies.
Enraged that the Moon had disappeared, but not knowing how, the Sun gave birth to another one, and put him in the night sky. And once again, the hamsters waited until he had grown suitably plump and then ate him.
Each time the hamsters of old eat a moon the Sun gives birth to a new one, only to have the hamsters eat it again.
So, live with honor and danger and you shall fly with Death on winds that blow from beyond the endless waters to feast forever with the hamsters of old. You will gather with old friends and nibble the Moon as the deathless stars dust your fur with sparkles.
After the story was over I felt like a hamster of old, like my father and brothers, like I was meeting danger with honor; Death with valor. But then the human roar filled my head and a terrifying story crossed my eyes, making me forget the lovely story of the hamsters eating the Moon. I pictured the flying-burrow coming to a stop, a human tearing off the ceiling and Death coming to collect me.
“Are you ready to be led trembling, little one?”
“What? No, not me,” I replied. “I’m not supposed to die! Take my sister…take my mother…It’s the humans…they made a mistake…I should be back in my father’s burrow…please!”
Death’s disgusted face, twisted in contempt, would be the last image to flicker across my eyes. The last sound I heard would not be my bones cracking, or a feeble final breath escaping my chest – it would be my sister’s laughter. And then I would be hurled to the cold ground and the human who spit me out of his mouth would say,
“Uggh! A chipmunk; I hate chipmunks.”
Having never learned to live with honor and danger, I was no better than a chipmunk.
“Anything but that,” I thought.
So, I began to prepare myself as best I could. I decided to talk to Death. He was near.
“Please forgive me; I am not a hamster of old who says, I’m prepared and then I am. If you were to show me how, I promise I will practice and then the next time you come I will be ready…I promise.”
The roaring ceased and the burrow stopped flying. A human gathered it in his soft paws, and I thought, “The end is near.”
Here was real danger; what a hamster is born to confront; a chance to earn honor.
The ceiling flew away. My eyes sealed themselves against the light. Truly, the Sun is no friend to hamsters.
I scrambled under the thin scattering of woodchips the humans had tossed into the burrow; I pushed under my mother. My sister did the same on her other side. I felt my mother rise into the sky again; this time I was not clinging to her. My sister and I tumbled over each other looking for our mother like Shrew looking for a filbert. I knew the humans had taken her, but at the same time I knew nothing. We called for her while crawling in the same pathetic little circles, whimpering our disbelief that the laws of the world could be reduced to dust.
“Mother, come back…Mother…Don’t let them take me…I’m not ready…Come back…I’m not a chipmunk…Wait, I am a chipmunk; don’t take me!”
If Death had told me that he would spare me, but I would live the rest of my days in the dark and gathering cool of an empty flying burrow, I would’ve agreed.
Had he offered to spare my life in exchange for my mother’s and sister’s lives, I would’ve agreed.
I dislodged honor from my memory. I embraced the life of a mouse, squealing my last breath into a wind that neither cares, nor recalls which animal is adding its life to its cache.
My sister and I were grabbed by the scruff of our necks and lofted into the sky. Her eyes were shut. Mine were open, staring at her passive face. She seemed calm although she had been as frantic as I only a moment earlier. I was so deep in the burrow of fear that I couldn’t envy her serenity. Instead, as the human paw swung us through the sky, I thought,
“Good, maybe Death will take her first, and I’ll have more time to live.”
Instead of being eaten we were placed on soft bedding. Really soft. Like new Pine needles.
You can not forage far living with humans and their burrows can be dug no further. Ours was made from twigs that they fashioned into a sort of nest. The twigs were arranged perfectly straight, up and down. They were frozen solid into the floor and ceiling of the burrow, yet were not cold.
The twigs came from a tree far beyond the waters that rock against the edge of the world.
Much later, when I left my human family to return to the prairie, I described the hard, straight twigs to two of my best friends, Sparrow and Bluejay. They assured me no tree in the world produces such twigs.
I enjoyed talking to Sparrow at dawn and Bluejay at twilight. Bluejay would explain why a world filled with ravens and foxes was still beautiful beyond telling. And no sadness could withstand the velvet force of Sparrow’s happy song.
Unlike burrowers, birds love and respect the Sun, yet they seem unaware of His great gift to them. I’ve asked birds more than two to describe the feeling of flying. Without fail they took to wing without answering me – as if the question was a Hawk.
Even Sparrow couldn’t help me.
“It is like foraging for hazelnuts, I suppose…only up, more,” she said.
It was Bluejay who knew.
“Ohhh, don’t mind the other birds, Hamster. We all know what a matchless treasure we’ve been given; we praise the Sun every morning for it. But whenever we think about it, really think about it, it becomes clear that flying is impossible. And we begin to fall.”