About the name. It has nothing to do with the color of her nose, her mouth, her feet, or her eyes (which happen to be a deep burgundy, in the right light). Nor is it intended to evoke images of diner waitresses or wartime riveters. It isn’t even meant as a tribute to my own mother, Rose. Rather, the family ferret owes her name to my daughter’s peculiar habit for christening pets, combined with the fluidity of the Japanese language as pertains to names. Earlier, we had a pet chipmunk named Risu. That means, simply, “squirrel”. The Japanese word for chipmunk is “shimarisu” (striped squirrel), and my daughter just shortened it to the stripe-less variety. Naming the critter ‘Risu’ was hardly any different than had my wife and I decided to name her “Kid”.
In Rosie’s case, only a tad more thought on the part of Kid (actually, Mika) came into play. Rosie’s official name is “Long”, because ferrets are, that. She looks a little like a lab rat that got caught in a taffy puller. That her name has any sort of character at all owes itself not to my daughter’s lackadaisical naming style, but rather to certain distinct features of the Japanese language. First, there is that notorious pronunciation issue. In Japanese, there is no distinction between the sounds of the English letters ‘l’ and ‘r’, so “long” in Japanese ends up at a midway point between “long” and “wrong”. Now, how do we get from long/wrong to Rosie, you are no doubt wondering? In Japanese, especially where pets, animated characters and children are concerned, official, given names are essentially just starting points. There are all sorts of ways to modify, and thus “cutify” them. For example, at different points, and by different people, Mika has been called Michan, Mikabu, Mikarin, and so on. Certain endearments, particularly “chan”, are standard, and every child, and I would guess most pets, get that tagged onto their given name (which is often subsequently abbreviated). The others just depend on how certain people – parents, friends, pet owners, etc. – feel about certain sounds, and which ones feel right to them when applied to the creature they wish to dote upon.
In addition to Rosie, she also goes by Ronchan, RonRon, and Ronbu from time to time. Rosie is in fact my own Anglicization of what Mika calls her in Japanese, which would more accurately be spelled “Roji” (with a soft, French pronunciation on the ‘j’). I do rather like the similarity between my mom’s and ferret’s names (as does my mom), however unintentional it may be. It is just one of those happy, bilingual accidents. Found in translation, you might say.
The last place we lived prohibited owning cats or dogs, hence our rather unconventional choices for furry friends. Throughout Mika’s toddler-hood and on through early adolescence, we went through a handful of hamsters, “graduated” to Risu (chipmunks are quite a bit smarter than hamsters, who seem to have no other purpose in the wild than to supply the low end of the food chain), and then finally a ferret. Prior to owning Rosie, were someone to have told me that a creature resembling a stretched out hamster would steal my heart one day, I would have scoffed. What I didn’t realize until we welcomed Rosie into our home is just how intelligent and friendly, and downright adorable, ferrets are, when raised properly. Like dogs, they are a domesticated species with a long history of keeping humans company. If a dog matches a human’s intelligence level at roughly the age of four or five, then ferrets, by my estimation, match up with us at just shy of two. In other words, what is arguably our cutest and most endearing time of life. Looked at from that perspective, perhaps one can better understand my deep affection for lil’ Rosie.
But there is more to it. Rosie came into my life at a time when I was in dire need of the kind of unconditional, nearly automatic, affection that only a pet can provide. I confess that I had put my daughter off for a few years, as she had been pleading for a ferret for that length of time. The reason for my resistance was that, as our experience with hamsters and Risu had shown, it would be I, not she, who would do all the work of taking care of her pet. Ferrets seemed like (and are) more work, and having watched her interest level and commitment decline with each previous pet, that was a burden I was reluctant to take on. As it turned out, in my early forties I fell into a severe depression that lasted for several months. With proper care and support I was able to fight my way back out, and Rosie was a part of that. Both my wife and Mika wisely (and perhaps in Mika’s case, a bit opportunistically) felt that having a fuzzy to look after would be a good form of therapy for me. With my weakened mental condition leaving me too exhausted to protest, the decision was made, and our family welcomed its smallest member. It was, more or less, love at first sight, and although my predictions about having to do all (or nearly all) the work have come true, I have nothing but gratitude toward Mika for her persistence. She got what I wanted (perhaps even needed), but just didn’t realize I did.
What ferrets are, more than anything, is curious, and this is a big, perhaps the biggest, part of their charm. They want to know everything about their world! When they aren’t sleeping (which they almost always are) they are nosing around. They are right there, snout to shoe tip, whenever a new person comes to the door to deliver a package or do some household repairs. A bag brought in containing groceries or clothing back from the cleaners can no sooner settle on the floor than be rifled through by Rosie, who plunges in head first and sniffs around until she has satisfied herself about its contents. There really isn’t any crevice, any hole, neither nook nor cranny, that Rosie, and I suspect all ferrets (as they were bred for heading down rabbit holes and ejecting garden pests), won’t fearlessly and instinctually poke her nose in, and as much of the rest of her body as it will accommodate.
During the warm months, or on sunny winter days, I often take Rosie to a park, or to the river not far from where we live, as ferrets need to run around on occasion to keep healthy. The leash hasn’t been invented that she can’t wiggle out of with an alacrity that would shame Houdini, so the prime criterion is that there be a large expanse of land, such as a soccer field, that offers me an uninterrupted view of her while she scampers about. This wasn’t always the case. Ferrets being such curiosity addicts, in the past I let her play in places that offered enough variety to keep her in constant search mode. That was until the day of Rosie’s (and my) Big Adventure.
Her favorite spot for nosing around was a small wooded knoll alongside the river. It was perfect, in that it offered enough vegetation to provide the sensation of exploring the Amazon to a small critter like Rosie, while at the same time said vegetation was thin enough that I could keep a stern parental eye on her. Most importantly, it didn’t have a lot of natural or manmade holes for her to squirm into, leading who knows where. On this day, her attention was fixated upon an old tree stump, and I crouched near her while she poked around it. Eventually she managed to find a small hole that had been created by erosion around the stump’s roots. I placed my own hand in and probed around, satisfying myself that it had only one point of egress, and then let her in, imagining her popping up in a short while, the color of coffee grounds but fully satisfied that she knew everything there was to know about that hole.
After perhaps twenty seconds, I was puzzled as to why she hadn’t surfaced yet, and reached in to retrieve her. No Rosie. With that first rush of panic that we have all experienced, the ones that our rational minds dutifully rush in to stamp out with assurances that there must be another explanation, I nervously thrust my hand about, to no avail, and to the horrifying realization that my earlier examination had been less than thorough. Ferrets, on the other hand, don’t miss anything, and it was clear that she had found another way out.
Ferrets are tiny. They move low to the ground. They don’t make any sounds. They move in unpredictable ways. Although my logical mind was going into overdrive trying to calm me down with the assurance that it had only been a minute or so at most since I had last seen her, my heart was beating madly because I knew that in fact a minute was sufficient for her to put a fair amount of distance between us, and each added second while I searched had the potential to increase that distance. This was not good.
When one’s eyes are situated a mere inch above the ground, the world one sees is completely different from that which you and I see. The terrain that Rosie was happily gallivanting over now was not the one that I frantically scanned with increasing panic. A small patch of woods that five minutes ago had seemed to hold no secrets had in fact revealed itself to be a labyrinth with seemingly infinite options for getting oneself lost. The proximity to the river also scared me. Rosie can swim, and if she reached the water’s edge I could easily imagine her wading in. Unpleasant scenarios began to multiply. The knoll itself was home to stray cats and large crows. Along the river I had seen the occasional hawk, and once, an owl. If Rosie was lost, the world she was lost in was not likely to welcome her with open arms. Open beaks and talons seemed more plausible.
If you’ve never seen a grown man crying out “Rosie!” in desperation, and then having to explain to concerned folks that it was his ferret, and not his daughter, whose loss was causing him so much anguish, then you’ve certainly missed one of life’s more absurd scenes. Those who came upon the spectacle walked away with a mixture of relief (that it wasn’t a child who had gone missing), puzzlement (a ferret? He’s crying his heart out for the loss of a ferret?) and confusion as to just how much compassion was still owed, when a second earlier you had felt like nothing you could do or say would have been enough. I wondered if perhaps I should apologize to all the good people, out for a pleasant Saturday by the river, who had been led to believe that a parent’s worst nightmare had just played out. In a sense, however, my anguish was related to my daughter, in that I feared that I might actually lose, not her physical presence, but her love. Rosie had won the hearts of the entire family, not just I, and I could only imagine how Mika would receive the news that, through my carelessness, she was gone.
I used my mobile phone to call Mika and explain the situation. She rushed over as soon as she could. We, along with some lovely children who wanted to help, scoured that area over and over. Eventually, it was apparent that Rosie was utterly lost, and as the sky showed signs of darkening it was clear that we would soon have to abandon the search. I couldn’t look Mika in the eye as we headed home, nor my wife when she came back later that evening. I ate in silence, while my wife and daughter, more forgiving than I had imagined, or felt I deserved, were already making plans to go out and buy another ferret, as the house suddenly felt very empty. Dinner might as well have consisted of nothing but paper to me as I mechanically sat there eating, while descending into a gloomy, guilt-laden despair.
Sleep, that night, was a lost cause. I probably never got more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch, as I contemplated what had happened, what I had caused. I feared the return of my depression. I was still in the process of recovery, and was feeling worse at that moment than I had felt since the darkest months. The months before Rosie had brought in light, light that I had just snuffed out. If I did sink back into a mental collapse, I was more or less convinced that I was only getting what I deserved, especially when considering the probable fate I had abandoned her to.
The last little stint of sleep that I got ended precisely before dawn. As I lay staring at the ceiling, a strange notion quite suddenly came upon me. I had better go back and search for Rosie. More than that, I had better go right now! In fact, what I sensed at that moment was: if I get up out of bed, and go now, I’ll find her. If I don’t…..
So I did. I dressed quickly, and was out the door and on my bike, heading toward the river, in the manner of a fireman responding to an alarm. I was speeding along, feeling oddly optimistic. The long shadows of first light pointed like compass needles toward my destination, the knoll where I had last seen Rosie. If nothing else, I considered, an energetic bike ride might tire me out enough so that I could at least get an hour or two of proper sleep after returning. On my bike, I reasoned, I could start at the knoll and then proceed to cover a lot more territory than I had yesterday on foot. As I cleared the last row of houses before the vista opened to reveal the wide expanse of the river bed, the knoll came into view in the near distance. As I approached it, I saw a cat moving about. Not good, I felt. Dawn was when the strays that made their homes on and around the knoll began their first prowl. It occurred to me that indeed I may find Rosie, or rather what was left of her. I sped along, trying not to think the many uncomfortable thoughts that raced through my head.
What next came into view, at the far end of the knoll, was a shape. A white shape, contrasting strongly with the green of the foliage surrounding it. From a distance, it could have been a plastic bag, or a piece of paper. But as I got closer, it began to look more familiar. Then I observed that alongside it was another shape, the unambiguous shape of a crouching cat. Less than a second later the entire scene was clear. Rosie was there, curious as ever, and less than a foot away from her was an equally curious, and possibly hungry, cat. They were motionless, staring intently at each other. Who knows how long they had been frozen like that, checking each other out? A second? Half a minute? Was the cat about to pounce? Or was it just welcoming this oddly shaped newcomer to the neighborhood? I wasn’t about to find out. I thrust the bike between them, shocking them out of their trances, and with one swift movement scooped Rosie up in a flash, as the cat turned tail and ran off.
With Rosie safely stuffed into the pocket of my windbreaker, I sped home, ecstatic, and hardly believing. I burst through the door, at just past five a.m., waking everyone up abruptly. “I got her! I found her!” Mika and Junko were as unbelieving as I was. In fact, at first Mika looked at Rosie and wondered if she was in fact another ferret who happened to be exploring the knoll that morning, so final had yesterday seemed and so implausible the chance of ever seeing her again. It was Rosie all right. And she stank! She smelled like every runaway animal does when they make their way home, leaving their owners to wonder just what sort of adventures they had been up to. I took her into the bathroom and scrubbed her off, while my wife and daughter stood behind, still barely believing. “I made it right!”, I remember saying, to no one in particular. Coming so soon after I had experienced the low point that had been my illness, and coming so close to returning to that condition, fetching and bringing back our overly curious adventurer stood out as one of my life’s greatest successes.
With considerably cleaner, but still malodorous, Rosie sleeping on my chest, I lay abed reliving all that had just occurred. Not surprisingly, my thoughts centered on the hunch I had received, the exhortation to “go! NOW!” If indeed the cat had intended to have Rosie for breakfast, then the stress on the importance of timing seemed almost miraculous. Another mere ten seconds or so may well have presented me with a very different scene. Equally curious was finding Rosie only a few meters from where she had gone missing, the same area that I, and Mika, and a troop of pint-sized Good Samaritans had spent hours going over with a fine tooth comb. She had since had another twelve hours to wander, and yet there she was. As if she too were answering a call. The moment felt very blessed, and I lay there radiating gratitude. As the weeks went on, Mika and I observed that our relationship with Rosie became heightened after that episode, in a way that didn’t wear off as one might expect. Although we had loved her before, our affection intensified, as we valued her more, and her return seemed to have been angelically engineered. Years have passed since then, but still that feeling persists.
These days Rosie leads a decidedly less risky lifestyle. For her, it is not as interesting loping over grassy fields as burrowing through wooded knolls, but since I’m the only one of us that managed to learn anything from that earlier misadventure, I’m not taking any chances. Ferrets don’t live forever after all, and in fact their average lifespan is considerably less than a cat’s or a dog’s. Not a pleasant thought to be sure, but neither is it one that I dwell on. I’m more interested in enjoying every precious moment of time I have with Rosie, the little gal that got away. And I got back.