“I’m sorry, I was expecting a-”

“Let me guess,” said the crow, its voice raspy and harsh. “You were expecting an eagle.”

“Well…”

“A hawk, then. Or an owl. Maybe a pretty flitting little songbird.”

Corrie bristled. “I said I was sorry. Among my kind that’s usually enough.”

“And among my kind, one doesn’t interrupt until the other has finished speaking!” snapped the crow. “Humans! All so alike, thinking that your perceptions are right and correct. Ooh, hawks and eagles are so honorable. Ooh, owls are so wise. Ooh, songbirds are so pretty. You know what? They’re not. That’s ignorance, the same things we crows are always accused of when we eat the crops you are trying to hoard for yourself.”

Tactfully, Corrie thought about her reply for a moment. “So what is the truth, then?”

“The truth is that hawks are sharp-eyed bullies that pick on things that are tiny or dying and are so proud they don’t deign to speak to anyone but their own kind. Owls are dullards who compare the size and consistency of their vomited pellets as casual conversation. And songbirds? If they spoke your language or you theirs you’d see that their songs are all ribald ballads about females with big eggs. None of them so intelligent as crows to be able to learn human tongues, all of them living by brute force and luck instead of their wits.”

“I had no idea.”

“Of course not,” said the crow. “The others are too dull to take advantage of humans’ warped ideas of them, and only we crows are intelligent enough to know we’re being insulted.”

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Here at The Hamster Sepulchre, we understand that childhood and classroom pets won’t last forever, and significantly less than forever if they are dressed up with Barbie clothes or fed a steady diet of leftover cafeteria food. Our founder, the Rev. Holsey McFetridge, was devastated by the loss of his childhood pet Sniffles the Syrian Hamster to eruptive sinusitis, and he vowed to create a safe and welcoming environment for small pets and their bereaved.

Set among an idyllic and scenic 27-acre landscaped park, interments at The Hamster Sepulchre represent a peaceful repose and a celebration of your pet’s short but fuzzy life.

Though The Hamster Sepulchre was initially founded for mesocricetus auratus and its fellow Cricetinae, we now accept interments from all species of small mammalian pets. From rabbits to gerbils to viscachas, all are welcome. No birds, lizards, and especially snakes please; their diets of rodents are disrespectful to our interees. Fish, especially goldfish, are an exception to the “no non-mammals” policy as they are excellent fertilizer.

The Sepulchre offers full open and closed shoebox funeral rites at our on-site non-denominational chapel, as well as memorial ceremonies, life celebrations, and raw materials reprocessing for our customers that are of other faiths, agnostic, or atheist. Cremation and Tibetan sky burial are available for a by-the-pound charge, and thimbles full of ashes may be kept as mementos or displayed in our Curio Shelf of Remembrance.

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Irrawaddy led his ‘guests’ through the decrepit remains of the lab. “The funding was cut off in the 1970s. But what we were doing was too important to abandon, so some of us volunteered to stay on and continue the work. Over time hunger, disease, cold, and wolf attacks took their toll, and now only I remain.”

A squirrel scurried over the rusting remains of lab equipment. “It’s only through my research, my devotion to Aquerna the Norse goddess of squirrels, and the companionship of Nibbles here that’s these 30 years have been bearable.”

“Squirrels…don’t live that long.”

“Of course not. I’m not crazy,” snapped Irrawaddy. “Whenever Nibbles dies, he’s reincarnated as another squirrel. Like the Dalai Lama. It takes a few months, but I find his latest incarnation and restore it to its rightful place. This is Nibbles XII.”

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People are always making the mistake of either underestimating or over anthropomorphizing animals. The truth is that they understand much about us, much more than we would suspect, but do so in a profoundly different way.

The animals of Huntgren Wood had long known that man was a dangerous predator, one that used a strange and sometimes invisible throwing claw to kill from a great distance. But generations ago they had also noticed that some humans would stalk and go through the motions of hunting but not take a kill. They would raise a strange appendage to their face–like but unlike the one they used to throw claws–and yet nothing would burst forth, only a quiet click audible only to those extremely close.

Prey animals thought this another inscrutable behavior of a predator, much like the way bears would sometimes climb and claw at beehives despite their lack of any real meat. The predators, in turn, felt it was play-hunting of the sort they had engaged in as youngsters fresh from the den–the humans were no doubt practicing stalking a kill before actually taking it, largely because that’s what the predators themselves would have done.

It fell to the birds who lived on the edge of the wood and fed on the strange and miraculous self-replenishing trees near human caves to uncover the true secret. Their love songs incorporated what they had seen and heard, and the birds of Huntgren sang of humans stalking with the strange square hoofs and then retreating to their caves, only to produce strange miniature forests and animals with which they decorated their caves. A curious coyote confirmed the tale with a terrified squirrel, while a bobcat received a detailed and matching account from a housecat it was half-courting, half-stalking.

Each clade of the forest dwellers reacted to the news differently. The predators felt that the humans were stealing their essence, drawing some kind of nourishment from it, and vowed never to be thus captured. The prey, especially the deer, felt that the process was akin to being gathered into the next life, where their traditions held that they were forever safe from predation. They felt there was no harm in the process–perhaps even some good–though they continued to be skittish as it was often difficult to tell a human’s intent from a safe distance. For their part, the birds and squirrels made a game of it, delighting in moving out of the way before the human could bring its capture-box to bear.

And that’s all it was–yet another inscrutable activity by an inscrutable race–until the oldest and grandest stag in the forest began to feel the twin horns of disease and old age and decided that a human capture-box and eternal life on a cave wall would be the only fitting end to his reign.

Inspired by this image.

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The black-billed gull bobbed its head nervously. “I see your children attempting to sneak up on me,” it squawked. “You know that the ancient and unwritten law both our kinds follow demands that a messenger not be accosted.”

A slight twitching of the matriarch’s ears and the younger cats withdrew into the bushes. “Speak, then, that we may satisfy the old ways and have our repast of you.”

“I come on behalf of the wrens,” the gull said. “They bade me speak to Tibbles, which I can only assume is you.”

“That is a name bestowed upon me unbidden,” the matriarch hissed. “You will not use it.”

“What am I to call you, then?”

“My true name is of our secret tongue and not for your ears,” the cat said. “You need not address me by name to deliver what paltry tidings you bring.”

“Very well.” The gull spread its wings. “My brothers, the wrens, have lived on this isle of Takapourewa from time immemorial. The rats chased their forefathers from Aotearoa after the arrival of man, and this is the last outpost of their kind. They are simple, trusting, and guileless, with no defense against those such as yourself as they cannot fly. They believe and practice total nonviolence against all but the insects they eat.”

“You tell me nothing I do not already know,” the matriarch cat said.

“The flightless wrens of Takapourewa have, in council, decided that their commitment to nonviolence overrides all, up to and including their lives and those of their children. They will not take steps to secure themselves against your predations.”

Purring the matriarch cat nodded in approval. “Then you bring us glad tidings! Thank you, messenger. You may depart this once with your life.”

“That is not the extent of my tidings, o cat,” the gull said. “The elder of the wrens bade me come, as one of a tribe who has known their kind for aeons and for whom flight offers a modicum of protection. They ask that you and your children cease your slaughter of their kind and allow them to live in peace.”

“Does our elder brother the lion live in peace with the gazelle? Does the wolf live in peace with the cat? That is not the way of our kind nor of any other kind.” The matriarch bent to casually lick her paw. “Your friends ask the impossible and we have no power to grant their request.”

The gull bobbed its head. “The wrens feared as much. They bade me tell you that, if your numbers continue to explode with the slaughter of wrens, when their kind is gone, your children will starve.”

“The weak ones, perhaps, but the strong and worthy will find other prey.”

“They foresaw that answer as well. The wrens bade me say one thing more. They have noticed that the humans have become interestied in them, in their rarity as the last of their kind. Even now they collect wrens as curiosities for display, and humans the world over ask for wrens of their own that they might study them.” The gull cocked its head. “If you exterminate them, the humans will be angry. You more than anyone must know what that anger can mean.”

Its last statement gave the matriarch pause. Her ears flattened for a moment before resuming their erect posture. “It is a risk we will assume,” she said at length.

“I am saddened to hear so, but I will bear your reply to the wrens,” the gull said. It launched itself into the air before the hidden cats nearby could pounce.

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No one is quite sure how it got there, or how it remains even after the annual mini-monsoons in late July. But every time a curious onlooker walking their dog near the vet’s office peeks over the lip of the drainage ditch, it’s visible. Mud-spattered and a little rusty, but still there.

A child’s bicycle, still with training wheels, set upright in the drainpipe under a bridge, like a refugee from a bloated Stephen King horror.

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Wilma loped after the intruder, baying, while Fred scaled to his favorite perch with a yowl and watched the ensuing chase with eyes shining in the semi-darkness. I had quick thoughts of trying to nudge Wilma back behind the kiddie gate, lest the intruder be carrying rabies or some other nasty cocktail of diseases, but she put the lie to her 16 years on earth with a surprisingly energetic pursuit. It was all I could do to follow armed with a broom.

The strange dog, for its part, seemed equal parts terrified and purposeful. While zigzagging across my living room, upsetting furniture and bunching up rugs, it nevertheless made straight for the kitchen. I lost sight of it for a moment, but when the dog reemerged, still tailed stubbornly by Wilma, I saw that it had a boneless chicken breast–one I’d set out to thaw for dinner–in its mouth.

It was only when the intruder made its escape, through Wilma’s doggie door, that I understood how it had gotten inside in the first place. I was able to slide the lock into place before my geriatridog chased the interloping hound outside, but, seized by intense indignation at having my house invaded and my pets threatened, I went through the large door, still clutching my broom, seconds later. It was a bright night out and the streetlights were on; I expected to see the dog running for the treeline across the street and 500 yards away.

Instead I caught a glimpse of a small, pale child in a pool of streetlamp light.

It glanced over its shoulder, and I could see my chicken breast defiantly clamped between rows of square white teeth. Eyes shone vividly in the twilight, and a moment later the figure vanished behind my garbage cans.