It was my wife, Esme, who suggested we get a pet for our children. “It will teach them responsibility,” she said.
“Sounds good,” I replied. However, I was not actually paying attention when she brought up the subject because I was going over my notes for a lecture on string theory. So, it came as a complete surprise when Esme and the twins arrived home from the pet store with a ferret.
“A ferret?” I said. “I thought you meant a real pet, like a puppy or a kitten.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Richard,” said Esme. “Dogs and cats are pedestrian. The children require a challenge. Besides, you just want a kitten so you can name it after that guy’s cat.”
“Schrodinger is the name of a scientist, not his cat,” I countered. “Just like you always like to point out that Frankenstein is the name of a mad scientist, not his monster.”
Esme called a family conference to decide upon a name for our new addition. Our ten-year-old twins, Tycho and his sister Nikola, came up with the usual nonsense.
“Stretch,” said Tycho.
“How about Long John Silver?”
“Princess!” Nikola insisted. “I think it’s a girl ferret.”
A discrete peek under the ferret’s tail didn’t show anything to prove otherwise, but I wasn’t familiar enough with ferret anatomy to know for sure.
“The guy at the pet store told me it’s a male,” said Esme. “He’s been neutered and de-scented.”
That explained the missing parts I guess. I petted the ferret in sympathy and he latched onto my thumb. He stared up at me with his beady eyes like I was the one who had done the dirty deed. “Hey, it wasn’t my fault!” I sensed that the ferret and I were not getting off to a good start. While I bandaged my finger, the twins argued back and forth about names.
Esme dutifully wrote down every suggestion they came up with and then scratched off the unacceptable ones. “No Tycho, we aren’t naming him ‘Butt-head’ just because he can sniff himself down there.”
I knew better than to interfere while Esme and the children debated names, but after ten minutes of watching the ferret contort his body into various shapes to scratch his backside and maybe look for his missing parts, I finally offered up my choice. “We should call him, Moebius,” I said.
“What kind of name is that?” asked Nicola.
“Oh, come on, you know what a Moebius is,” I said. I tore a strip of paper from Esme’s note pad and twisted it once before pinching the ends together between my thumb and bandaged finger. “This is a Moebius Strip. When I twisted the paper it created an infinite loop. Now, if I were to place an ant on the surface of this paper and it travelled the length of the strip in a straight line it would never come to the end.”
Esme and the kids looked at me like I was talking in tongues. The ferret – having no opinion on the matter – had tied itself into a knot and hunkered down for a nap in the corner of its cage. I pointed at the ferret and pleaded my case. “Another name for a Moebius Strip is a twisted cylinder, which kind of fits, if you think about it.”
“I like it!” said Tycho. “Let’s take a vote.” Both of us raised our hands.
Esme checked the list of names she had written down but obviously did not see anything better. “Moebius, Mo-bee-us, Moebius.” Esme repeated the name, testing it for suitability. “I suppose that might work. Except I think we should shorten it to Moby.”
“Moby DICK!” shouted Tycho, with heavy emphasis on ‘Dick’.
Nikola looked disgusted as her brother marched around the room chanting Moby DICK! Moby DICK! I decided it could be worse (luckily his mother had vetoed ‘Butt-head), so we took a vote, and by a margin of three to one – Nikola still wanted Princess – we decided to name our long skinny ferret after a fictional whale. A month later the point was moot because we began calling the ferret Mobidini, which was short for Moby-Houdini.
Mobidini was a consummate escape artist who managed to squeeze himself in and out of his cage through the most unlikely gaps and learned to open doors and latches like pro. At some point he also turned to a life of crime and became a thief.
One morning I could not find a single pair of black socks in my dresser drawer. “Didn’t you do laundry?” I complained, as I walked into the kitchen carrying the only clean socks I could find, a pair of white tube socks. “Where are all my dress socks?”
“Check the bottom drawer of the credenza,” Esme replied.
“It’s that low cabinet in the dining room.”
“Yes, I know what a credenza is,” I replied. “Why are my good socks in there?”
“Mobidini does it. He likes taking things and stashing them away.”
I went to the dining room and retrieved a pile of neatly rolled socks as well three russet potatoes and one of my good ties from the credenza. I put the potatoes on the kitchen counter.
“Thanks,” said Esme. “I was looking for those.”
I sat down and put on my socks while Esme bustled around getting breakfast for the kids. She called down the hall towards the bedrooms, “Tycho. Nicola. Hurry up or you’ll be late for school.”
“I can’t find any clean underwear in my drawer,” Tycho called back.
“Check the linen closet in the hallway,” Esme replied.
“Linen closet?” I asked.
“That’s where I found the potatoes last time.”
“Okay, I know he can pull open doors, but tell me, how the heck does a ferret get inside drawers?” I asked.
“He must squeeze in from underneath and crawl up through the back,” Esme explained. She opened the cupboard to get a box of cereal. “Aaack!” She stepped back and I saw Mobidini staring out at her from a nice little nest of blue Stanfield briefs. Esme shooed the ferret out of the cupboard and yelled. “Tycho, never mind the linen closet. I found your underwear in the pantry.”
“We really need to do something,” I said as I stuffed Mobidini back into his cage. “Wasn’t this pet thing supposed to be the kids’ responsibility?”
Esme shrugged and went back to making breakfast.
Eventually we gave up on trying to lock up Mobidini and simply left the cage door open so he could come and go as he pleased. The ferret and I reached a stable state where Mobidini promised not to bite me when I disturbed his nap in the bathroom sink, and in return I favoured him with an endless supply of crumpled paper balls which he collected from the waste basket in my study and stored in the credenza. It was not unusual for me to find him rooting through the laundry basket or curled up on one of the book shelves in my study. So, I was almost sad when Nikola left the back door open one day and Mobidini made a mad dash across the backyard and disappeared into the fields behind our house without looking back.
Esme and the kids made a half-hearted effort at handing out “Missing Ferret” posters to the neighbours and a guy down the street reported seeing something that looked like a weasel rooting through his garbage, but after a week went by without another sighting we considered Mobidini gone for good. Truthfully, no one seemed too perturbed by the loss. The children had lost interest in cleaning Mobidini’s cage and Esme did not miss the smell. I put all my dress socks back into my dresser drawer where they belonged and considered the ‘pets-teach-children-responsibility’ experiment a colossal failure. But I incorrectly assumed that the matter of owning a pet was finished.
“We should be getting hamsters,” said Esme a few days later. “One for each of the kids.”
“What?” I dragged myself back into the real world from the depths of grading yet another student paper about the potential of worm holes near the event horizon of black holes.
“A ferret was too ambitious,” said Esme. “Too exotic. Hamsters are smaller and easier to handle. The kids can keep them in their rooms.”
Nikola named her hamster ‘Princess’ and dressed it up in a series of teeny pink bows that her new pet promptly chewed into pink strands of nesting material. Tycho made me proud by naming his hamster, ‘Heisenberg.’
If Esme knew that hamsters were nocturnal, she forgot to mention it to the kids. That first night Heisenberg was particularly energetic and did nothing but run on his exercise wheel. The constant rattle of the wheel was occasionally broken up by the frenetic clatter of the ball-bearing in the tube of his water bottle when he stopped to take a drink. The next morning a bleary-eyed Tycho sat across the breakfast table from me. “Heisenberg kept me up all night.”
I tried to cheer him up. “Hey Tycho,” I said. “Did you know that if you measured the circumference of the wheel and found a way to count the revolutions you could figure out how fast Heisenberg was going and still know where he was at the same time?” I laughed at my joke but Tycho just shrugged, which confirmed my suspicion that he would someday follow in his mother’s literary footsteps. Then, because I had time to kill before heading to the University, I decided to run the experiment myself. I marked the hamster wheel with a dab of red paint and grabbed a click counter, but after a night of running himself ragged, the hamster was snuggled into a ball and ready to sleep all day. In the evening I was busy marking student papers and by the next morning it was too late. Heisenberg was gone.
“Did you leave the cage open?” Esme asked a tearful Tycho. He shook his head and gave me a suspicious glare as if my mere suggestion of calculating the hamster’s speed had somehow created the adequate quantum uncertainty to make it disappear. Our family was adept at searching the house for missing socks and potatoes, but we found no sign of the hamster.
Tycho was heartbroken, and ‘Heisenberg the second’ showed up before the end of the weekend. The new hamster seemed just as determined to set a land-speed record as his predecessor, so I sat with my clicker and counted revolutions of the hamster wheel until I was dizzy. By my calculations, the hamster hit speeds up to five miles per hour, which seemed rather slow to activate a quantum anomaly. Even so, the new Heisenberg blinked out of existence two days later.
Both children were absolutely sure it was my fault. Nikola snuggled ‘Princess’ protectively as I postulated about worm holes, parallel universes and the very exciting prospect of a quantum anomaly existing in the home of a theoretical physicist. “It’s definitely worth investigating,” I said. “We should ask for a grant. Maybe I can get a grad student to take it on as a thesis project.”
“Does that mean one of your nerds has to sit in my room all night?” asked Tycho.
“Maybe,” I replied. “Or, more likely we’ll set up cameras and sensors and –”
“Absolutely not!” said Esme.
I was hurt. “Not even in the name of science?” I asked. “Think of the opportunity.”
“No!” said Esme, dashing my plans to write a paper on the possible existence of a quantum singularity activated by a hamster wheel.
Esme secretly replaced ‘Heisenberg’ a few more times without Tycho’s knowledge because, face it, most hamsters look alike. Then, one night Princess disappeared too – leaving nothing behind but some half chewed pink ribbon – so we gave up on rodents altogether, mainly because the local pet store was getting suspicious. “The clerk wanted to know if we were feeding them to a snake or something,” Esme said.
“Oooh, can we get a snake?” Asked Tycho.
“No!” We both replied.
It turned out we were cat people after all. Newton – so named because Esme vetoed ‘Schrodinger’ – was a semi-intelligent looking Tabby who liked to curl up on my lap while I graded papers.
Miraculously, a week after we got Newton the cat, our erstwhile pet ferret reappeared. I found Mobidini grazing at the cat food dish early one morning. I couldn’t help but notice that he looked surprisingly healthy and plump despite having gone missing for several weeks. I checked him over and noticed something strange; there was a tiny strand of pink ribbon caught between Mobidini’s toes. There was a similar pink strand hanging from his butt, and as I stared into the ferret’s beady eyes I knew the mystery our missing hamsters was finally solved. I carefully removed the evidence of Mobidini’s murderous ways and decided it was best to keep the secret of the not-quite-quantum hamsters to myself.
In retrospect I should have known there was a logical explanation for our missing hamsters. It was simply a matter of applying the proper field of study, in this case, zoology instead of quantum mechanics. Although, in my defence, my expertise runs to theoretical physics not the natural sciences.