Learning to Dance
Expressive 2010 1st Place
Professor: Dr. James Aton
Two sets of canines flash. Two hisses slither over two tongues, sounding like raucous music, swelling and falling and more, following no bass beat or clever guitar chord. There is a primal melody in the low noise, broken by jagged chirping and screeching as each blow is landed. Two sets of nails rake over two sets of hair and pale skin. Bodies hunker over, sides heaving and backs arched, trying to look larger than normal. Two heads dip to the ground, eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose. For a moment both are still, and then a muscle’s tensing is all it takes to begin the dance again. Three four-footed leaps to the left, two sliding steps backward, forward, a roll, a pounce. Hair is flying, irises are flashing. Lips curl over bared teeth. And then an opening—two forms lunge for the throat, and one comes clear the victor.
I let her fur slide free of my loose pinch, and I laugh. For a moment, it startles me that she does not join in my chuckles, and then I remember that she cannot. Like a cornered cat, the ferret rolls out from under my furless fingers, glossy black guard hairs bristling. She weaves back and forth, sinuous weasel body stretching and shrinking with each bounding leap and skid. I pick my tired body up off the floor, slithering on elbows and knees closer to the crevice beneath the bookshelf where she is crouching in wait, eager for the moment where I will take a step too close and bring myself in range of her attack. I know exactly what she intends, and I know I could just as easily turn around, rise to my feet and walk away. I can see a hundred possibilities that she cannot—but I still take that one step too far and dart back from her snapping jaws. The ferret wiggles, black eyes wide, and I want to believe that it is joy glittering in the white circle shines. I know there is joy in my eyes: it is not everyday one learns to dance.
Mustela putorius furo, twelve inches long, one and a half pounds of solid muscle, teeth meant for cracking bone, claws built for ripping open rabbit warrens: the American Ferret is an eccentric pet choice at best. Essentially, a ferret is a polecat, a weasel, a wild animal whose closest cousins include badgers and wolverines. The store clerk told me, “You can’t treat a ferret like a cat or a dog. They aren’t the kind of pets that will cuddle up and do everything you order them to.” I had nodded then, rolling my eyes behind the clerk’s back. Inside their cage at the store, they looked like lazy lumps of fur, content to live their lives asleep. Boundless energy? Sure. I picked my dozingfuzzball from the bunch and carted her off to our house, dreaming of training her to leap through hoops and dance for treats. Sweet dreams have a habit of ending.
After all we have been through, I can honestly say I have failed to domesticate Elly—but she has managed to undomesticate me. The “War Dancing” was only the beginning, and one by one, Elly battered me with bizarre behaviors that could not be ignored. Like an impatient teacher, she repeated the motions through and through, chirping and hissing when I failed to meet her standards. She stalked me, shadowing my movements and darting between my feet, biting playfully at wiggling sock-clad toes that must have looked like well-plumped worms. She deftly followed every move I made, over piles of discarded clothing, onto chairs and under tables, into cluttered closets and up the bed. And all the while, she watched with her glittering, weak black eyes. I did not know what she was doing, but I changed myself to suit. I developed a shuffle, toes curled under pads, smaller steps, twisting ankles sinuously to evade the small furry body below. Ungainly as I felt, I could not help but wonder if this was how ferret mothers felt, constantly chased by their learning kits, shufflingacross the floor, keeping close watch over their long-clawed toes that could easily cut through thin, young flesh. And Elly was learning from me, I was amazed to discover. Her dim eyes managed to catch the way my fingers slipped behind the catch for the bathroom cabinets. Completely struck with disbelief, I watched her mimic my motions, open the heavy, latched door and pull the reward of her cleverness free. She snatched the last roll of toilet paper and unrolled the entire thing, filling my hallway with shreds of cottony pulp and chirping a lilting song of unadulterated excitement. With uncountable amounts of amusement and horror, I let it happen.
Then, the day Elly punched a neat pair of holes through my left ear, I was ready to stick her right back in the cardboard box and dump her at the pet store. Clutching my bleeding ear and wiping tears of pain from my eyes, I desperately consulted the multitude of ferret books I’d collected (almost obsessively), searching for any mention of aggressive ear biting. I found an answer I was not expecting. Ferret kits are prone to nipping their litter mates’ and mothers’ ears to stimulate the senses. Something of a ferret “wake up call,” Elly’sear-gnawing was a gesture of companionship that I had simply been forced to accept. I came to mimic the motion, pinching her ear gently in my fingernails, and she would roll over every time, ready for a practice battle or a run.
Biting and shadowing were not the only traits she imposed on me, or that she imposed on others. In her ferret eyes, our small basement apartment became an overgrown den, with table legs instead of imposing tree roots, chairs instead of boulders. Weasels are decidedly territorial, ferociously guarding their hovels from all intruders—animal and human alike. The first night I ordered pizza, the delivery boy and I both received a nasty surprise. A black streak came flying around the door’s corner, every hair standing on end, pink mouth gaping and fangs glinting. The pizza man jerked backward, but not in time, and Elly latched onto his thin canvas shoe with vehemence. The pizza carrying bag went flying; the delivery boy tripped and fell in his haste to retreat, and Elly began to claw her way up his pant leg. Dragging her out by her skinny black tail, I apologized profusely, and offered him a generous tip, even while she fought in my hands, intent on going back and protecting our home from the “intruder.”
She is not my pet. Our relationship is not that of master and animal. Because I could not make a human of Elly, Elly made a ferret of me. Duly educated, I have become a ferret mother, and she learns from me like any growing kit: four-footed shuffling, spasmodic dancing, hissing, hunting, rolling, biting. To an outsider, how strange must we look, lunging at each other and wiggling on the carpet? But Elly and I have a language, a way of communicating with each other that is secret and belongs only to us. It is simpler than English, simpler than any spoken language that has ever existed. It is simpler than even the convoluted body language that plagues human relationships. It is dependency, loyalty, and education all in one.
A pursuit between us is not entertainment, is not a trick like “fetch” or “roll over.” It is a hunt, a battle, training for wilder days, days that will never come, when we will chase rabbits and be chased by foxes, when we will sink our teeth into warm prey, when we will feel the thrill of a real hunt, instead of squabbling over leather shoes. It is easy to forget that I do not have fur, that we are not both free creatures who can live by instinct and need alone. It is easy to forget that later I will put her away in her cage and sleep on my fluffy mattress, easy to forget that I will rise tomorrow and go to the university to learn. Hasn’t Elly taught me everything I need to know?
Protect your home. Protect each other. Do not trust strangers. Play hard. Play voraciously, in case you do not wake tomorrow. Observe elders—they know what you can’t even imagine. Do the things that make you happy, and do them with abandon. Live, run, dance, sing. While she learned from me, I learned from Elly. It is a primal sort of knowledge, one that, if I chose to step outside myself, would seem disconcerting. Life could be so much simpler.
Being a ferret has made me wonder if sometimes a discouraging bite might not be a clearer message than bumbling English words. Being a ferret has made me wonder if we “civilized” human beings haven’t made a terrible mistake. Ferrets do not worry, do not develop anxiety disorder, and do not need pills to regulate their mental states. Ferrets do not start wars over religion, over culture, or over race. Ferrets do not tangle themselves in moral battles, do not waste their lives deliberating over difficult decisions or relationships. How free she seems, pretending my socks are a family of slaughtered voles. I scruff her gently with my fingernails, pinching at her ears. This is all it takes to say “I love you unconditionally” in the language of animals.
Maybe tonight I will not crawl onto my plush mattress. Maybe tonight I will not lock her away in her metal and plastic cage. It would be easier tonight if I were not a human being, if I could forget calculus, chemistry, computers, cars, televisions, terrorism, intolerance. . . if I could fill my mind, like she does, with nothing but curiosity, fierce loyalty to my kin, with nothing but a love for chirping songs and lilting dances. Wouldn’t I be so much happier? Maybe tonight my kit and I will curl, crescent-like, in our den, and sleep and dream of nothing but sleeping and dreaming again.