Yesterday I met Toby.**
I was at Kristen’s house for a make-it-better interview and that put me in the right place at the right time. Toby had just arrived back home.
Toby is Kristen’s pet chinchilla. I had heard about Toby, and how much Kristina wanted to meet him. But Toby was elusive, mysterious even, a chinchilla in the shadows.
Toby is the subject of a (friendly) custody agreement. In middle school, Kristen’s class had a pet chinchilla, one they thought was a male of increasing girth, who was actually a female bent on increasing the chinchilla population.
Typically, chinchillas are a rare, expensive pet, but the teacher arranged for inexpensive adoptions to students if they promised a good home to the babies. Kristen’s parents were not charmed by a full-time chinchilla, so Toby shares his time between two homes – with Kristen and another student from the class.
Kristen stood in front of me with Toby in her hands: she had described him as part-bunny, part-squirrel, part who-kn0ws-what. I could see what she meant: he reminds me of a platypus, in that he looks like he was made up of spare parts at the end of God’s create-a-mammal party.
His body is small and very round, with a bushy-ish tale like a squirrel’s. His ears stick up like a rabbit’s, but shorter, wider, more delicate. His hands put me in mind of a raccoon’s for dexterity and articulation, but they are impossibly tiny – one would not have covered my pinky fingernail.
And his whiskers? Oh my, his whiskers. They were the longest whiskers I’ve ever seen. I imagine they are super-sensitive, telling Toby everything he needs to know about his world, but that could just be a sci-fi projection. They must have stretched twice the width of his body, twitching constanstly.
(On a cat, the span of the whiskers is the same as the widest part of the cat’s body. When a cat tries to duck under or into a hiding spot, the whiskers tell if the cat will fit. If the whiskers touch or bend, the cat would get stuck – time to back out. It’s a clever protective measure.
A protection I denied my family cat when I was six or seven years old. I was playing with scissors – you’re right, this can’t end well. At the time, I thought I was giving him a stylin’ whisker trim, but the cat ended up with whisker bristles about an inch long. My mother – naturally – went ballistic and I forked over my allowance for the next eight weeks to pay for his public health tag. I’ve never forgotten why cats need whiskers.)
Back to Toby. His shape and whiskers were intriguing, sure, but his fur? “He’s really soft,” Kristen said as I reached out to touch him.
Then I forgot everything I thought I knew about soft.
Chinchilla-soft is not “like” anything else. I could say that the softest silk velvet and the smoothest silk satin had a baby and it was a chinchilla. I could ask you to imagine downy baby skin. But that wouldn’t do.
Touching Toby, I forgot how to speak for a moment. Every part of me was reaching into my fingertips, trying to be there at the edge where skin and fur met I felt light and joyful – I wanted to pet Toby forever.
I could never own or wear a fur coat, not when we have so many other ways to stay warm. (Talk to me when there’s a glacial apocalypse and I might sing a different tune.) But for the first time, I understood how someone could want to, in an effort to keep close that sensation of pure soft. It would not be the same though, without Toby’s warm heart pounding inside and his nose twitching his whiskers into a greeting.
Meeting a chinchilla = thrilling.
Kristen said that Kristina would be very unhappy that I got to meet Toby before Kristina did.
She was. There was pouting involved.
**Disclaimer: this is not a photo of Toby. Even though I had a camera in a bag at my feet, it didn’t cross my mind to use it.