Our Tree Topper
By Caroline Der
A teenager is expected to carry out another year of her family’s brutal tradition. Tormented by reservations and her conscience, she makes a decision that changes the course of her family celebration.
For as long as I could remember, our family had a Christmas tradition that was either mildly unpleasant or horribly disturbing, depending on your perspective. Sure, it was a bit cruel, but so is Thanksgiving for the turkeys that unwillingly make the ultimate sacrifice so that human families can gather and pretend to enjoy each other’s company.
Why the double standard for hamsters? Besides, we don’t eat them—we’re vegans. Every year, a family member chooses a hamster. This year, the task fell to me, and so I went to Petco with Delphine, a friend from school. The drive there was silent, bar some stilted conversation where she reminisced about her first hamster.
“Have you thought of names?” she attempted after a particularly painful lapse of silence.
“No,” I replied.
I’d read an obscure book once, in middle school maybe, by a cattleman who said he never named his cows because leading one with a name to the slaughterhouse was unnatural. I agreed with his rationale. But I remembered Delphine didn’t know about our tradition, so I kept quiet.
Soon, we pulled into the Petco parking lot, desolate save for an astonishingly red convertible. I strode purposefully to the hamster aisle. This year they were nearly all a boring beige, mindlessly climbing on top of each other, just like dumb goldfish. Pathetic.
“Ooh, I like this one,” Delphine pointed to a black and white hamster that stared beadily up at me, forlorn. A salesperson came shuffling uncomfortably close and cheerfully announced, “Oreo and you seem to have a connection!”
“Interesting,” I said, although it was quite the opposite. “I’ll take it if it’s not pregnant.”
The saleswoman looked startled. I explained the catastrophe of 2009 when the hamster unexpectedly gave birth, then promptly ate her offspring just hours before Christmas. She laughed uncomfortably and assured me that Oreo was not pregnant. Twenty minutes later, the hamster was all mine.
Later, as I made my way into my childhood bedroom, I kept a firm grip on the carton so as not to make it dizzy. I was considerate like that. We had the cage from last year’s hamster ready; Dad had cleaned it the night before. I lifted the hamster out. Instead of squirming like the particularly feral hamster of 2018, she lay still in my hands, nibbling the tip of my index finger. I was struck with the crazy urge to give her a quick pat like one does to a child.
“Oreo’s a name for dogs,” I told her, my voice hard.
Her eyes pierced me indignantly, and I relented, giving her not one but two pats.
A couple of weeks from now, she’d be our Christmas tree topper, and those beady eyes would haunt me from their new fixed position perched atop the tree all through the holidays. I shook off a wave of repulsion for her impending fate.
Oreo was subsequently rechristened Beady, yet the day of her execution crept upon us like a malevolent shadow. As I fed her, I tried to avoid her inquisitive nose, which was always sniffing for a hint of my guilt.
At dinner, my family discussed taxidermy poses with increasing excitement. I felt sick and was building up the courage to admonish them until my sister recalled how I’d enthusiastically suggested the winning pose in 2013.
I slept fitfully, my dreams plagued by images of a permanently still Beady. As the days went by, I couldn’t bear the thought of my playful little pet forever unmoving. I unlocked her cage and felt compelled to share some parting words with her. I steadied myself and took a deep breath, “This is it, Beady…”
She snorted, and warmth suddenly flooded my veins.
“You know what, Beady? You’re not dying. Not this Christmas.”
I informed my family that Beady would not be adorning our tree, ever.
“Are you kidding me?” my sister scoffed.
“She’s my pet.” I explained, watching their bewildered faces.
Frantic attempts to buy another hamster were spurned. My brother came back from Petco empty-handed that evening. “Sold out,” he shrugged. My distressed mother became even more hysterical.
As Christmas loomed, my family threw me increasingly resentful looks for “ruining Christmas.”
Their hostility was palpable, and I feared for Beady. I had to do something, so I bought a gaudy angel topper, similar to the ones around town. Personally, I felt it lacked the sophistication of a hamster. But to my surprise, my family found it serene. My dad even pondered aloud why we hadn’t done this every year, and my mother emphatically agreed, as if they weren’t the ones who had created the tradition. Hypocrites, the whole lot of them.
Nevertheless, in the end, I had saved Christmas, my beloved Beady, and all future hamsters. I considered myself somewhat of a minor hero.
The story came to fruition during the holidays. My friend had just gotten a hamster for Christmas, and as she sent me pictures of it, I thought about how cute it was. A couple days before this, I had visited the Museum of Natural History with my sister and wondered about the lives of the animals before they had been taxidermied. And thus, an idea came to my mind. Writing the story was super fun, but reducing the word limit was challenging. I found myself thinking about every word, phrase, and sentence. The process has definitely helped me become a more concise writer, while keeping the integrity of the story.
Caroline Der, when not gushing over Pride & Prejudice (the 2005 film!) with her mentor, enjoys trying new food from dubious places with friends and taking personality tests. In her spare time, she fancies herself a photographer. She has undertaken various craft projects with little success but continues to remain optimistic. Her latest endeavor, ring making, has brought her much enjoyment. Caroline takes pride in helping her various communities through volunteering and leadership.