My son wanted a rat for his birthday.
"Rats are very smart and they make good pets. I'll take care of it ... even clean the cage!" my third-grader said, as if this was the ultimate proof of his sincerity.
Of course I didn't believe him. What parent in their right mind believes a child who says he is willing to postpone games, toys and friends to clean rat doo? But like every mom who longs for proof of her child's budding maturity, I decided to consider it.
At the pet store, the salesgirl knew by my serious expression that I was going to be a hard sell.
"They're fun pets," she said as a rat climbed up to her shoulder and peeked around her neck. "They're not hard to take care of."
"And you can always bring it back," she wisely added.
That was the clincher. How could I now say no to the big, teary, pleading eyes of my son, who looked like he was ready to fall on his knees and beg?
We came home with a big, white rat and a wire cage, and for the first few days, my son dutifully cared for his new pet. He held it, let it crawl up his arms and cleaned the cage as he said he would. But after a week, disaster struck.
"Mommy, there's something wrong with the cage. It's squeaking," my son said.
Upon examination, I quickly determined the cage wasn't squeaking, but the mewling noises he heard were coming from eight baby rats buried in the shredded newspaper bedding inside. I immediately called the pet store.
"We just bought a rat last week, which the salesgirl said was a male. Well, our 'boy' rat just had babies!"
"Sorry ma'am, it's sometimes hard to tell."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Don't worry, you can bring them back to the store," the salesperson said.
"Good! What are your hours today?" I asked.
"Uh ... the babies have to be weaned before we can take them back."
"What?! How long does that take?"
"About a month."
I groaned. That month couldn't go by fast enough. But after several weeks, I received a strange phone call.
"I'm calling about the rats for sale," a woman said.
Confused, I asked, "Where did you hear that?"
"My daughter brought a flyer home from school," she replied.
When questioned, my unexpectedly entrepreneurial son pulled from his book bag a stack of handcrafted flyers that advertised "Rats 4 Sale to Good Homes." Though his enterprising spirit surprised me, I was more astounded a few weeks later when the woman who had telephoned came to pick up the two rats I had promised her.
Like a typical suburban mom, she drove up in a minivan. As she examined the litter, she gushed about how much she loved rats. Selecting two, she expertly reached into the cage to retrieve them and carefully deposited them into a cardboard box with air holes poked in the top.
I didn't even make her pay for them.
As she walked down my front porch steps, carrying two young, active rats that made scratching noises inside the box, she noticed some plants in my garden. She started talking about the medicinal properties of flowers.
Impressed after listening to her for a few minutes, I said, "You really know a lot about plants."
"That's because I'm a witch," she said as casually as someone might say they sell pretzels at the mall.
"A witch? You mean like broomsticks and black hats?" I blurted. I couldn't even mask my shock.
She laughed and explained that she was a practitioner of Wicca, a sort of modern, nature-loving witchcraft, which I knew nothing about. Waving goodbye, she hopped in her minivan with the rats and drove away.
For a month I could hardly wait to get rid of the other rats, but when I finally returned to the pet store, I felt an unanticipated twinge of regret.
"You're not going to feed them to the snakes, are you?" I asked suspiciously.
"No," the salesgirl assured me. "We'll sell them as pets."
I hoped she was telling me the truth, but later I wondered why I had worried. After all, I had just given two rats to a witch.
Ann K. Howley of Bethel Park can be reached at email@example.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Animal Tales" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255. First Published October 2, 2013 4:00 AM