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By Max Millard

My sister Tam had been ill with the flu all week, so when the bouquet of flowers arrived, accompanied by a package wrapped in her favorite purple paper, her immediate thought was, "How sweet!" But as she ripped open the package, she let out a scream. It was the comic book. Once again the dreaded "gift" had been passed."

Thus begins the saga of the comic book, recounted in a family scrapbook put together last summer for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Five brothers and sisters, now scattered from England to California, dutifully rummaged through stuck-together photographs, long-forgotten letters and old report cards in search of items that might elicit a chuckle or reawaken a poignant moment in family history. But nothing we dug up from the past could top the tale of the comic book, an ongoing drama for 11 years.

But the saga's true beginning was the late 1950s, when my sister Kathy and I developed a passion for comic books. Every week, after Dad gave us our pocket money, we would head for the local store, pore over the racks and pool our meager funds for our favorites -- Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and the like. One endearing character that always got our dime was Mr. Mxzyptlk, the imp from the fifth dimension. He was the bane of Superboy's existence, and the only way the Boy of Steel could get rid of him was to trick him into saying his name backwards....

Switch scenes to Christmas in Windham, Maine, 1982 -- one of those rare occasions when the family was reunited. I upheld my reputation for "unique" gifts by bestowing "antique" comic books on both older sister Kath and kid sister Tam, 15 years her junior. Kath's gift was an old Jimmy Olsen, a treasured find. Tam's, however, was a "Young Romance" -- a real dog to true comic aficionados, meant as a jest rather than a comment on her taste in illustrated literature.

Tam tried to trade, but Kath adamantly refused. Later that day, while packing her suitcase before returning to her home in Washington, D.C., Kath discovered the "dog" hidden in her belongings.

"I'll fix this," she told herself, and proceeded to hide the "thing" in Tam's bedroom.

While unpacking in Washington, Kath discovered to her horror that the "thing" had followed her home. Tam had found it hidden in her room and re-secreted it among her clothes. What to do?

The solution presented itself when Tam's boyfriend, who also lived in Washington, called to ask if there was anything he could take back to her at college. "Yes," Kath replied. "I forget to give Tam one of her presents. Can you take it?" He quickly acquiesced. Kath had gotten rid of the "thing" once again.

A few months later, while Kath was on her first day on the job as a lobbyist, her new boss provided her with a stack of "background reading." As she sorted through it, she came to a large interoffice envelope with a routing slip attached. Opening it, she was horrified to find -- what else? -- "Young Romance" staring back at her. She looked up and saw her boss laughing uproariously in the doorway. Tam had sent him the hated object with an explanation about the game, asking him to pass it on.

Later that year, Tam visited Kath in Washington but remained ever-vigilant, never letting her suitcase out of her sight. At the airport, the sisters hugged each other in front of the airline officials, then Kath waved goodbye as Tam boarded the plane. Just as the gate was closing, Kath rushed up with an envelope in hand and asked the flight attendant to give it to her sister. Tam, her guard down, was unsuspicious when the flight attendant paged her. Her expression changed to repulsion when she opened the mysterious envelope. Kath had struck again!

After that, the passings evolved into a steadily more elaborate game. The only rule is that the recipient may not refuse the "gift" once it has been opened. Various family members have been involved in transmittals, and strangers have been drafted as couriers.

The next year, Kath joined the Foreign Service and was posted overseas for two years. Tam held onto the wretched comic and plotted revenge. Then Kath returned to Washington to get married, and the eve of her wedding, her fiance handed her a package which, he said, was a family heirloom he wanted her to have. Deeply touched, she tore open the wrappings only to find -- you guessed it -- the much-passed "gift." For the sake of their marriage, he has since taken himself out of the passing game.

In the years that followed, my sisters made a remarkable discovery about human behavior: people in high places everywhere will bend any rule, breach any corporate policy, in order to help a good joke along.

On one occasion, Kath contacted Tam's alma mater, Amherst College, and after making a donation, persuaded them to enclose the comic in a sealed envelope along with the alumni magazine. Stung again!

But Tam produced a topper. In 1990, while Kath was conducting immigration visa interviews for the Foreign Service in Kingston, Jamaica, an applicant passed her an envelope through the window containing guess-what. Tam did not learn the details until months later, when the following letter arrived from a consular official she had never met:

"A thousand pardons for not having written earlier with news of our glorious success in the delivery of the object to the enemy. I lost your new address, and temerity prevented me from asking your sister for it for some time. One has to allow the sting of defeat to fade, after all.

"My fellow conspirator, Mr. Newell, and I planned for weeks, trying to decide how best to fulfill your desires for delivery. Ultimately we opted for your preferred vector: a Jamaican applicant.

"On the morning in question, we went through the sheets looking for the perfect messenger -- an applicant who needed just one simple item to get a visa. We found what seemed the perfect case, and instructed the hapless Mercury to conceal the vile book inside a folder, then to slide it through to You-Know-Who, saying that her lawyer asked her to deliver it.

"Alas, we underestimated the draconian nature of your sister. She called the woman to the window and proceeded to detect some niggling technical defect in the requested document. The abused woman, bless her, persevered, and attempted to deliver the concealed item using the lawyer line. The intended recipient, always suspicious of lawyers, stiffened and demanded to know what it was. My heart stopped. My stomach fell. Mr. Newell, pretending to be a disinterested bystander, interjected, 'Well, at least take a look at what the lady brought.' Kath reached for the fateful folder, picked it up, and opened it.

"There passed across her face a look of utter disgust, of the kind that must have appeared in Lucifer's face on being cast into the pit. She uttered one word: 'Shit.' Then we burst into laughter and she, rather ruefully, joined in. She even thought to reassure the applicant, who by now had become quite nervous. The triumph was that she did not know who had caused the pestilence to be returned to her, although we ultimately confessed. I hope our performance meets with your approval."

Kath has "it" at present, but is working on exotic return mechanisms. "I have several ideas," she wrote in the family scrapbook. "But I can't describe them here because you never know who may be listening. But one thing is for sure, it has to be before my next overseas assignment, because I certainly don't want to take something like that with me."

Mr. Mxyztplk would have approved.



By Max Millard

In the summer of 1976, before I left my home state of Maine to live in San Francisco, my brother Pete came home one day talking excitedly about an airfield in the nearby town of Biddeford where you could take a one-day course in skydiving. Pete, who was a daredevil and considered himself bulletproof, was soon hot on the telephone, trying to enlist every male friend we had to go along. Everyone either blurted, "Are you crazy?" or gave some excuse. One guy was prepared to make the venture, but finally backed off, saying that his wife wouldn't let him because they had three children, and what would happen to them if he were killed?

The only person who would agree was a young Englishman named Giles, who was living with us. Realizing the worthlessness of our own bachelor hides, Pete, Giles and I piled into my brother's old Volvo and headed for the airfield.

It was out in the center of nowhere, down a dirt road that twisted through a forest and finally emerged in a flat, dusty area where a lot of cars were clustered around a collection of old buildings and trailers. It was like a big clubhouse, where most people, it seemed, were not there to jump, but to sit around drinking Coke and smoking cigarettes to watch the jumpers. The walls were papered with faded newspaper stories about the airfield, especially about people in their 70s or 80s who had taken hundreds of jumps. I thought, "This will be a snap."

After each handing over $35 and signing a form absolving the airfield of blame in case of an accident, we waited in a small classroom with half a dozen other young enlistees. One man confided, "A guy was killed here last week. His chute got caught in his foot and opened just partway. He was an experienced jumper, so instead of using his emergency chute, he kept trying to untangle it. He was still trying when he hit the ground. But don't say anything to the instructor. He doesn't like to talk about it."

The instructor was a serious, macho-talking, overweight chain smoker who had a way of bringing us into his confidence, as if we'd become part of an elite fraternity. "Skydiving is one of the safest sports in the world," he began. "For your first jump, a safety cord will be attached to the airplane, and your parachute will open automatically when you exit. You must look up immediately to make sure it does. And if it's not completely open -- "

He pointed to a small bundle attached to his chest. "This is your backup chute. All you have to do is punch it sharply, like this."

He delivered a blow to the bundle. It popped open like a jack-in-the-box, sending a parachute flying across the room.

The object, he said, was to aim for the target area, a circle of dirt resembling a big dartboard, perhaps a hundred yards across and clearly visible from the air. Strapping on a parachute, he showed us the ropes on each side and demonstrated how to pull them gently to turn left and right.

After more safety talk, he led us outside to the practice jumping area, a sandy lot with several wooden towers about eight feet high. Soon we were taking turns jumping off the towers, feeling like young Marine recruits. The instructor showed us how to cushion the shock by buckling our knees and crumpling to one side at the moment of impact.

There were metal frames in the shape of airplane wings, where we practiced pushing off backwards. The instructor said we should try to get far clear of the plane, and keep our bodies parallel to the ground, like a Olympic swimmer pushing off from the wall.

Finally he decided we were ready. He took us to a shed, where we each selected our own jump suits, parachutes and helmets. The plane was so small that it could only hold three people besides the pilot. When our turn came, Pete, Giles and I climbed in together. The the plane ascended ever higher, my heart began to pound. The target area looked about the size of a nickel. As we circled round and came directly over it, the pilot suddenly cut the engine, slowing the plane to a crawl, and sliding open the door. The wind rushed in. Giles, grinning nervously, eased his way out on the wing and got in position like a sprinter in the blocks. On cue, he pushed off with his hands, shouting "Geronimo!" as he disappeared into the distance. We could see his chute pop open, and he glided gently down. The plane made another circle, dropping Pete this time, leaving me alone with the pilot.

"Your turn," he said, sending my heart up into my throat. I don't think I've ever been so nervous as that instant when I climbed outside, took a deep breath, and plunged into nothingness. My mind went blank, and I completely forgot to look up and see if the chute had opened. Fortunately, it had.

Unfortunately, the instructor hadn't taken into account that I was wearing glasses. The force of the wind knocked them up under my helmet, and by the time I had extracted them and was able to see again, I was so far off course that there was no possible way to come make it anywhere near the target area. Instead, I was heading straight for the middle of the woods, and my only thought was to avoid missing a tree.

As I floated close to the ground, a sense of calm swept over me, and I felt my senses magically sharpening. When I could almost touch the treetops, time seemed to stand still, and I was able to steer myself into a little clearing, just missing the branches and landing safely on the ground. Giles came running through the trees toward me, and his face lit up when he saw I was unharmed. He said he'd never felt so relieved as when he saw my chute open.

A few weeks later Giles was back to England, Pete had left for a year-long trek through Latin America, and I was living in New York City. It was my last summer in Maine, and the last time the three of us would be together. None of us has jumped since. But that one day will always live in my memory like a rite of manhood. Ever since then, when I've heard people talking about taking a skydiving course and making their first jump, I've never missed the opportunity to chime in, "It's nothing -- I've done it!"



By Eleanor Ohman (1919-2006)

Early one spring on her way back from work, Hildegarde happened to look in a store window. Without thinking twice she went in and bought a baby duck and a baby rabbit as Easter presents for the children. It was to be a more complex present than she knew when she paid $5 apiece for them, but who could resist a live duckling -- a yellow powder puff with a tiny orange beak floating around in a soup bowl and emitting piping little calls for its lost mother? Or a baby rabbit, timid, ears tight back, soft as a white snowball, with bright pink eyes and a twitching nose, huddled in a corner munching on a sprig of parsley?

She brought them home in a cage wrapped in tissue paper and tied with a pink bow, and gave them to Molly and Tory. Then she stood back and listened with pleasure to hear their gasps of delight. This was the most successful present she'd ever given.

Molly was the older and got to choose first. She picked the duck, cupping it in her hands and instantly naming it Herkimer. Tory, the little sister, was glad she got the bunny, having never stroked anything so soft. It was like stroking air. She held it against her cheek and said she'd name it later when she got to know it better.

Straight from Greenwich Village, they now lived halfway up the mountain road in a rustic Vermont house not much bigger than a cabin, set back from the road with a big lawn in front. Across the road was a field with a pond. Every morning Hildegarde went to work and came home after five, sharing the rent with Nancy, a friend from college days, who was home all day sitting cross-legged in the livingroom writing poems which she saved in a large trunk.

The little newcomers, the duck and the rabbit, soon became a part of the family. Since they had never known their mothers they cuddled up to each other in their cage at night and had no idea who they were or of what species. They became too big for their cage and soon spent much of the daytime outside exploring the world around them, even wandering occasionally into the living room and socializing with guests in the evening.

Day by day they grew. Herkimer began to get feathers and a funny quack. The nameless rabbit, getting fatter and more self-assured, bounded silently about looking for greens, never quite understanding why his friend could only waddle and not bound about the way he could.

Wherever Herkimer wandered you'd find the rabbit, and vice versa. It became clear that each one had no idea who he really was. Because the rabbit possibly thought he was a duck, Tory decided finally to name him Dabbit, and so he became.

By late summer Herkimer was a grown duck, with a magnificent quack that sounded like a fat man laughing. With the full-grown Dabbit beside him he strayed farther and farther from home. Finally they crossed the road, and it wasn't long before they found the pond. Herkimer made a running dash, sailed onto the water and was soon gliding around like a schooner. Behind him Dabbit watched this in astonishment. With a bound he headed for the water too, but came to a screeching halt at the water's edge to shake his wet forefeet and retreat. There was nothing he could do but wait on shore for Herkimer to come back. From this day on, you could see a patient white rabbit sitting all day by the pond, munching on green grass, waiting for his friend to come to his senses and get back on shore.

Herkimer sometimes became a carouser. On some summer evenings when the family and friends were all sitting out on the front lawn drinking red wine out of coffee mugs, he would wander from one mug to another, poking his big round beak into their wine and scooping it up in noisy sips. When people laughed at his antics he laughed too, especially when he tried to walk and found he was putting one big webbed foot on top of the other and falling flat on his face.

Then autumn blew in and the days became cold and sharp. Herkimer and Dabbit, always side by side, began sitting together in the middle of the road where the sun warmed the asphalt. Sometimes a long line of cars lined up full of tourists from around the country coming to see the autumn foliage, and none of them knew exactly what to do about a duck and a rabbit in the middle of the road. Horns would start honking and after a while Nancy would rush out and call them back to their home, a little room behind the pantry.

Then winter came. The pond froze over and the lawn was deep in snow, with Herkimer and Dabbit's footprints making crisscrossing patterns on it as they explored the new white world. Each morning Hildegarde shoveled the driveway before driving to work in a restaurant, and one day as she was clearing the tables she got a terrible call from home.

"You killed Dabbit!" It couldn't be true but it was. Nancy had found the crushed little body. It seems that when Hildegarde backed her car out of the driveway she hadn't seen their white rabbit in the white snow sitting behind her back tire.

The halcyon days were over. After a solemn ceremony Dabbit was buried with a small ceremony in the back yard deep under the snow. Herkimer, suddenly alone in the universe, became confused. In vain he searched for his friend, wandering around the house and yard while the winter got colder and colder.

The temperature dropped to 20 below and the pond froze over. When Herkimer wanted to swim he found a deep ditch not much bigger than a washtub, where water was still flowing. Every day, alone, he floated about in it a while, then retired to his nest in the back room.

One evening at supper time the family heard a quacking that seemed louder and more continuous than Herkimer's usual quacking. It came from the side yard. When Hildegarde put on her boots and hurried out to investigate she found Herkimer with his feet frozen solid to the water, unable to move in any direction. She tried to lift him but she couldn't. After she called the family, and they all tried in vain to lift him out, Hildegarde picked up the phone and called the volunteer fire department, who said they could not come all that way to rescue a single duck, but she should call Ed Nichols, a farmer who had a big farm down the road.

He came over almost right away in his truck, carrying an icepick and a blowtorch. "Where's this little old duck you called about?" Herkimer was quacking so loud Ed didn't really have to ask. He took his blowtorch and melted a circle around Herkimer, lifted him out of the pool and gently chipped the ice from his feet with the icepick. He held Herkimer in his arms and shook his head. "This ain't no place for a duck," he said, "Let me take him back to the farm where he can be with my ducks. He'll be a heap happier there."

After they all agreed that Herkimer would be better off on the Nichols farm, they watched him leave in the truck, quacking as he went, and his quack was like a last laugh. They heard him until the truck went around the bend and was gone. It was sad for the little girls, so one Sunday Hildegarde drove them up to the Nichols farm to visit Herkimer. They all piled out of the car and rang the doorbell. Ed Nichols came to the door, with his fat wife behind him, wiping her hands on her apron.

"We're just sitting down to Sunday dinner, or I'd ask you in," Ed said, looking decidedly uncomfortable. The rich aroma of roast duck was wafting out the door.



By Max Millard

Once I had a pet. Her name was Little Thing.

I first saw her on a warm spring morning when I was walking past a bus shelter on Polk Street. I heard a peeping sound, and there on the sidewalk was a baby chick. It looked like a yellow-white snowball, with long legs and a face that was mostly beak. People waiting for the bus were smiling and saying, "Look at that little thing. Isn't it cute?"

It was hardly bigger than an egg, but absolutely fearless. The whizzing traffic and the huge feet tramping by didn't seem to bother the chick as it struggled to remove a piece of chewing gum stuck in a crack.

I was puzzled about where it came from, and then remembered that it was two weeks past Easter, when pet shops sold chicks for children's presents. Perhaps someone's parents had tried to return it to the pet shop, but the shop didn't want it. So they just left it on the street, hoping that some kind person would take it home. The chick must have been raised with loving care because it was very tame. When I reached down, it came toward me and nuzzled up against my hand.

A few feet away was a small cardboard box with a china bowl filled with clean water and rice. Next to it was a large cement trash container. A man in the bus shelter said, "Probably fell off a poultry truck. That's all right, the garbage man will take it away."

I had grown up on a farm with chickens and had always liked them. So I scooped up the chick in the box, closed the lid and walked straight home. From inside the box came a chorus of scared noises. By the time I reached my door, the poor creature was panting from heat and fear, and could hardly stand up. I put the chick in the bathtub with some bread and water while I taped a plastic milk crate to a big cardboard box to make a cage. I put newspaper in the bottom and made a bed out of a soft thick sock. The crate had diamond-shaped windows, giving the chick a view of the whole room.

Soon I heard the door opening as my wife Salve returned from work. "What's that?" she asked in surprise. When I told her, she said it was OK to keep the bird until we found it a proper home. We weren't sure if it was a boy or girl, so we just started calling it "Little Thing." Later we learned it was a hen.

The sudden addition of a chicken to our home was a big change, for we lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor, with no open space where a pet could roam except our kitchen floor. I put a tall styrofoam board in the door frame so she couldn't escape.

She was hungry most of the time, and would eat almost anything, including jalape¤o peppers. When I brought her food, she was so impatient that she would jump at my hand. When we served her favorite things, such as lettuce or corn on the cob, she gurgled with the happiest sounds. You never heard such contentment from a human. She was very clean, and after eating, she carefully wiped off her beak.

When Salve and I sat down for a meal, Little Thing liked to climb on Salve's foot and walk up her leg. She would be on the table in a second, attacking our food. So we gave her a small dish of the same food, and lifted her up on the dinner table with us. When we served french fries, she wrestled with them as if they were worms.

Every morning when we left for work, we put some newspaper on the kitchen floor and left her there. She spent most of the day under the stove, where it was warm and dark. We could hear her scratching and chirping happily, and when we returned, the floor was covered with dust balls that she had dug up.

At bedtime, I put her cage on top of the stove because it was the warmest place in the apartment. When I put the cover on, she would peep in protest, but her sound gradually grew softer, and soon fell silent. She slept with her head tucked under her wing.

When we at were home, she had to be with us every second. If we entered the kitchen, she would jump on our shoes and peck at our shoelaces. If we wore sandals, she would peck our toes, not realizing they were part of us. We came so close to crushing her that we developed a shuffling walk while in the kitchen, barely lifting our feet from the floor.

She was like a slightly misbehaved child. When I studied at the kitchen table, she liked to sit on my book and grab at my pen. I'd put her in a little wire tray for my paperwork and carry her from room to room. Sometimes she craved the warmth of the reading lamp, and lay directly beneath it, stretching out her body like she was taking a sun bath.

She soon learned her name. Salve would shout "Little Thing!" and laugh when the chick came running. Sometimes Salve would hold a watermelon seed in her hand and cover it with her thumb, then lift her thumb for an instant while Little Thing lunged for it. Our pet was so quick that sometimes she got it.

When we watched TV in the living room, Little Thing would start cheeping from the kitchen, so we'd place her box between our chairs and put her on top of it. She would sit there contentedly. Other times Salve would hold her on her lap, where Little Thing would quickly fall asleep.

She liked to sit on our hands first, then walk up our arms and sit on our shoulders. She could sleep anywhere, even on our fingertips. When she did, her eyes closed, her body relaxed, and she swayed to and fro on my hand, so light that I could hardly tell she was there.

When I went to the bedroom to work at my computer, I brought her box so she could watch me. We took her into the bathroom with us at bathtime. I held her in front of the mirror, and she was surprised to see another bird; she kept turning her head to look. I tried to clean her feathers with a Q tip but she grabbed it and wouldn't let go.

She was full of surprises. I used a noisy hair drier each morning, and I thought Little Thing would hate it. Instead, she came up close to see what it was. I playfully aimed a blast in her direction. She liked the warmth and wanted more. After that we had to take turns using it.

In the beginning, Little Thing was like a new baby, demanding our constant attention and waking us up too early. After two weeks I wanted to give her away, and found a place in Oakland that would take her. But Salve talked me out of it. By that time, Little Thing had become a member of the family. As we all adjusted our schedules to accommodate each other, she became much easier to live with. I started getting ready for bed earlier because I knew she needed 15 minutes to settle down, and I stopped staying up so late because I knew when she'd get up.

She loved to jump, and soon was flying a little. From the top of her box in the kitchen, she leaned forward, looked at the ground, then took off, clearing the barrier and bumping her belly on the living room rug like an airplane making an emergency crash landing.

I looked forward to coming home each night because I knew Little Thing would be there to welcome me. She got so excited that she would fly toward me, too eager to run. As she grew, I had to keep raising the level of the barrier in the kitchen doorway. I always made sure the barrier was just high enough. It usually took her three tries to jump over, and by that time she was too tired to try again. But one day, after leaving her on the kitchen floor, we came home to find her back inside her cage in the living room.

Salve worked at a cafe in the neighborhood called the Nob Hill Noshery. I started bringing Little Thing there during Salve's shift. I always chose the table nearest the front door, where I'd put her on a newspaper on top of a high chair. She became quite an attraction: people would see her through the window and come in to buy coffee. Many of them wanted to stroke her, pick her up or even kiss her. She was well behaved in public, sitting quietly and watching the activity around her. If no one noticed her, I'd announce, "When they say the chicken here is fresh, they're not kidding."

Sometimes I'd sit at an outdoor table and let her explore the sidewalk, ready to snatch her up at the sign of a dog. We looked for ants together. If I saw one, I'd point to it and she would run to gobble it up. Passersby would stop and ask, "Is that your chicken?" When I said yes, their next question might be, "How many do you have?" One person joked, "Pretty soon she'll be big enough to cook."

As tiny as she was, she had a voice that filled the apartment. When she was happy, she made a little peep peep noise, like a tea kettle starting to boil. She could chirp and squawk like a parrot. Other times her voice sounded like a leaky faucet or the squeaky wheels of a supermarket cart. If she wasn't getting enough attention, she would cry like a baby. She had a strange ability to throw her voice: you could swear she was in one corner of the kitchen, and then you'd see her on the other side.

She was always pecking at something. When she was under the stove, you'd hear the tap-tap-tap of her beak against the wall, and later I'd find a little pile of paint chips. As an experiment, I put a large potted plant on the floor and let her scratch around in the dirt. She was delighted, and didn't want to leave. So I started bringing in several houseplants, and I let her go from one to the next, like a little indoor garden. She liked to be placed on the top of the tallest plant so she could use it as a launching pad.

Next to our living room was a fire escape, which seemed like a good place to make a chicken run. I installed some chicken wire around it, then put Little Thing there one afternoon. When I checked later, I was horrified to see that she had gotten through the wire and was walking calmly on the window ledge, about 70 feet above the ground. She walked most of the way around the apartment before I was able to get her inside. One misstep and she would have been a splat on the pavement.

* * *

Around this time, she started to lose her balance. I saw her run around the kitchen in circles, then fall asleep in her food dish while she was eating. She lost the ability to jump and fly. Her back became stiff and hunched, her neck stretched out, and she couldn't turn her head. When I stroked her, she sometimes squawked.

Day by day, her voice got noticeably weaker. One day she could no longer open her beak; she pecked at food but couldn't eat it. I was afraid she would die of thirst, so I pried open her beak and sprayed water down her throat. After that, she began to avoid me, and wouldn't come when I called her. But in a day or two, she returned to her usual sweetness.

Soon afterward, while she was sitting in the wire basket beside my computer, she had a convulsion and fell behind the desk. Then she began having nightmares; she would wake up several times in the night and run crazily around her box, cheeping loudly. I would get up, pet her and calm her down until she was able to get back to sleep.

We didn't know what to do. One morning, after Salve had left for work, Little Thing went limp, and wouldn't get up. Her breathing got slower and slower. She opened her mouth wide, as if each breath was a big effort. I picked her up and called her name, but she didn't respond. Every once in a while she shook violently and spun around in her cage. There was nothing I could do, so I simply stayed and watched over her. Then she gave a big shudder, her legs trembled, and she lay completely still.

When I saw that she was dead, I removed the styrofoam from the doorway and dismantled the cage, then took everything downstairs to the trash. I put away the little china dish so that I wouldn't see it and remember.

I didn't want to tell Salve right away, but went to the cafe at the end of the day so we could walk home together. When she saw me she asked, "How is Little Thing?" I just shook my head, and when she looked into my eyes, she knew. On our way home, I stopped at a stationery store and bought a little cardboard box for a coffin. It was so small that it fit in my jacket pocket.

Late that evening, we took Little Thing for one last walk, down to the Noshery where she had been so many times before. She weighed only few ounces. I thought, she will always be little now. There was a tree in front where she liked to play. We dug a hole at the base and buried her there. I covered her with fresh dirt and planted some flower bulbs on top.

The next morning I went to the cafe with Salve when she opened at 7 a.m., but I couldn't bear to sit near the door because that was Little Thing's table. I took the broom and swept around her grave. An hour later I went home sadly, knowing that the apartment would be strangely silent.

I later learned that Little Thing probably died from poisoning, either from paint on the wall or pesticides in the potted plants. I had saved her life, then taken it away by accident.

The hardest thing about losing a pet is that you have to suffer the grief alone. Only you have a deep relationship with the pet, and know its personality as you would another person's. You and your pet have created a whole world of your own, where each of you is a giant.

When I returned to my office job on Monday, I felt very different. I removed the two photos of Little Thing that I'd put on the wall of my cubicle and replaced them with photos of Salve.

Little Thing was with us for just 50 days, from May 1 to June 20, 1992. It's a small part of a person's life, but I think I will remember her for always. She was never much trouble, and she brought joy to our lives. Whatever we did for her, she gave us back much more. If there's a heaven for pets, I'm sure she is there.