I heard Clara’s alarm go off in her bedroom. A high-pitched repetition of squeaking and squealing at the foot of her bed. There was a rustle of blankets and some heavy footsteps as she swung herself onto the floor and stood for a moment in the center of the room, blurry-eyed and confused. The noise continued. There was no snooze button. Her guinea pigs were awake and they were dancing for their breakfast, hopping up and down at the edge of their cage, begging for food.
I groaned and covered my head, trying to ignore them until my own alarm was set to go off, but after a few minutes, this proved to be impossible.
By the time I got to her room, she was already sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cutting board on her lap and a pile of lettuce and carrots on either side of her. She was slowly making two tiny bowls of salad.
“What are you doing?” I asked as I sat down next to her. Although it was quite obvious. She was cutting a piece of carrot into half-inch sticks and delicately positioning them on top of a pile of lettuce leaves which had been cut to the size of fingernails.
She smiled up at me and then focussed again on the gentle sliding of the pairing knife through the carrots. “I’m making the girls some breakfast.” She pointed with the knife at the two guinea pigs that were still jumping on their hind legs and sticking their greedy little noses through the gaps in the fence.
“Right,” I said. “You are making a salad, but… why? I mean… why not just hand them a lettuce leaf and a chunk of carrot and be done with it. I think they would actually prefer that.”
She chuckled as if I had just said something extremely naive. “Oh Dad, then they would never learn.” She sighed. “See, watch.” She paused for a moment or two, simply watching the two fuzzy creatures. They stilled for a moment and waiting as well, black beady eyes locked on those of their master. Then the girl bent back over her work and ran the knife across the cutting board with a rumbling noise that ended with a hard chop.
The guinea pigs went crazy. The squealing was almost deafening.
My daughter looked at me again and smiled proudly. But it was obvious that I was still confused. “You see,” she explained calmly. “I’ve trained them to react to the sound of knives. They associate this sound…” She ran the knife across the board again and was rewarded with more chaotic squealing, “…with food.” She squinted at them and raised her voice a few octaves. “Haven’t you girls? You know that means food, don’t you?” She passed a few bits of carrot through the bars and the sisters devoured it like wild animals.
I was a bit stunned and leaned back against the edge of the bed. “But… why? Why are you training them to react to the sound of knives?” I shook my head in dismay.
Clara continued cutting, slowly, patiently, making long delicate slivers of food for her obedient caged children. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said slyly. She lifted the miniature bowls of salad and placed them in the cage and then wiped her hands off on her pajamas as the guinea pigs dove into the bowls barely coming up for air as they tore into their meal. She leaned forward and rested her chin in her hands with her elbows on her knees and she smiled. She smiled the proud smile of a parent, the confident smile of a warrior, the sinister smile of someone that I suspected knew full well why she was training guinea pigs to react to the sound of knives.
As I left the house that morning, I double-checked to make sure the door was closed and locked behind me.