When she was a child, Yasmeen lived on the rural outskirts of Aleppo in northern Syria. Her house stood near a sesame field that bordered an irrigation ditch on one side and a stand of Aleppo pines and pistachio trees on the other. Yasmeen loved nature, and would often rise before dawn to quietly sit and observe, as the creatures of the night departed to their lairs while the birds commenced their songs to induce the rising of the sun. One morning she caught sight of a small rodent on the edge of the field, and was startled to see an owl swoop in to carry it off into the trees. Going over to investigate, she heard a choir of faint squeaks coming from under the ground. She got her father’s shovel and unearthed a cluster of what appeared to be wiggling peanuts, but proved to be seven hamster babies with their eyes just opening.
Yasmeen took them home and nursed them with an eyedropper filled with hummus and yogurt. Only one survived, and she lavished him with all the love a nine-year-old could muster. She named him “Saddlebags” because he insisted on stuffing his cheek pouches even though she filled the food dish in his cage every day. Saddlebags would have the run of the house each evening. Yasmeen would challenge him to climb the stairs to the second floor, and had a long cardboard tube in the hall that he could scurry down, only to find her waiting to catch him on the other end. Sometimes she would have him snuggle in the pocket of her blouse, until one day he decided to chew a hole in the bottom, getting her mother very upset. Yasmeen usually let Saddlebags sleep all day long, as was his want. The only exception was one beautiful day in late spring, when she took him on a picnic with her friends Farah and Mariam.
All the creation of happy childhood memories abruptly ended with the coming of the Syrian Civil War. One morning the song of the birds was replaced by the chopping sound of government helicopters with barrel bombs strapped to their bellies. Yasmeen’s neighborhood remained undamaged until the coming of the Russian jets. A terrifying late-night bombing run destroyed their home and killed her parents. Yasmeen was hospitalized for several weeks. When she went back to the wreckage of their home, she found Saddlebags’ mangled cage, and said a prayer that he had been able to escape into the wild.
For a time, she lived with her grandmother in a nearby village, which was repeatedly overrun by rebels, government forces, Russians, ISIS fundamentalists, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Kurds from the east, and invading Turks. Every day brought a new terror. In nearby Khan al-Assal, a rocket attack released sarin gas that poisoned the population and contaminated the land.
Finally, Yasmeen was able to relocate to the relative stability of her uncle’s home in Damascus. She devoted herself to school, and was able to win a scholarship to attend the University. After graduating with honors, she obtained a position as research assistant at the Medical School, the same institution that the “Fearless Leader” had attended.
Yasmeen’s position at the Medical School was as a lab technician at the Longevity Institute, a pet project of the Fearless Leader, whose greatest fear was the enforced decrepitude of aging. This is something he shared with his friend and ally the Russian tyrant Putin, who provided the Institute with funding and technical support. Yasmeen worked in the department headed by the Russian scientist Dr. Popov, whom she despised (as she despised all Russians for the devastation they had inflicted on her family and community.) But she needed the job, so she kept her mouth shut and did her work. Fortunately, Dr. Popov was not a “hands-on” administrator, devoting much of his time to alcohol and the pursuit of attractive women at the Russian embassy. As long as he was hands-off as far as she was concerned, things would be fine.
Work at the Institute was building on the breakthrough studies reported by Harvard Medical School involving the family of proteins called sirtuins that play an important role in the aging process. Sirtuins perform two key functions. They serve to ensure that the wrong genetic components are not activated in a given part of the body, so that, for instance, the genes responsible for the stomach do not take over the function of the liver. Sirtuins also act to repair DNA damage caused by radiation and free radicals. The deteriorations associated with aging will occur if sirtuins cannot effectively do these two jobs. The goal then is to enhance sirtuin performance, either by directly increasing its availability, or by blocking other proteins that interfere with its DNA repair function.
Yasmeen’s job involved working with test animals, including care and feeding, administering of pharmaceuticals and toxins, sampling of DNA, euthanasia, and performance of post-mortem examinations. When she started, the lab used rats, but the spread of a virus among the population forced a switch to hamsters. It was hard for her to just treat them as test specimens, given her fond childhood memories.
In particular, one little male hamster, #2193, reminded her of good old Saddlebags. He had the same endearing characteristics, including the stuffing of his pouches every chance he got. Yasmeen gave him special treatment, placing him in the control group when carcinogens were administered. She also selected him to receive daily doses of the red wine derivative resveratrol, which was known to stimulate formation of sirtuins. Since the doses also included residual alcohol, this made #2193 a very happy hamster.
As the population of series 2000 hamsters was depleted due to natural or accelerated aging and unavoidable disease, more specimens were added to the test regime. Finally, the lab population reached a point where elimination of series 2000 was deemed necessary, and it was scheduled for euthanasia and extensive post-mortem examination. Yasmeen was one of the lab assistants assigned to this work.
When it came to #2193 and a few other favorites, she could not bring herself to perform these executions. She decided to simply substitute the post-mortem results of hamsters with identical cases histories so that the validity of the entire project would not be compromised. One evening, she slipped #2193 into the inner pocket of her abaya, and set him free in the parking lot next to the University. “Good luck little Saddlebags. Be free. Be free,” she whispered as he scurried into the overgrowth.
The visit of the Fearless Leader to the Longevity Institute had been an unqualified success. He was fascinated by Dr. Popov’s presentation, and received the first doses of his sertuin supplement and NAD protein injection. Continued funding for the Institute was assured, and Popov was pleased with his reassignment to the Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University. He envisioned himself as ascending to the position of one of Putin’s chosen few, with wealth, fame, and sleek women soon to follow.
The helicopter conveying the Fearless Leader took off from the parking lot and was halfway back to the presidential palace when it experienced a total loss of flight controls. The subsequent failure analysis revealed that the power cord to the avionics control computer had been severed, with rodent chew marks apparent on the insulation.
When the helicopter landed in the parking lot, a broken terebinth branch was caught against its underbelly. Drawn by the sweet aroma of leaking coolant, #2193 climbed on up to explore. The cable insulation was somewhat chewy, but its flavorful nuances had a strange appeal to his taste-buds.
As the vehicle was spiraling to its fiery demise, #2193 was thrown clear, and spread himself flat to increase his air resistance, like his rodent relative the flying squirrel. Fortunately, his fall was broken by a bushy terebinth tree, and he suffered nothing more than some scrapes and contusions. Among the roots of the tree, another one of Yasmeen’s chosen, a female, had established a burrow. A few weeks later, a litter of pups was squeaking for their mother’s milk. #2193 was quickly banished after his moment of ecstasy, but he remained nearby, waiting for new opportunities. Despite his old age, he was feeling quite sprightly. Seven litters a year, seven pups in a litter—the hamster was on its way to reclaim its domain in the war-ravaged land of Syria.
The Syrian or golden hamster, beloved first pet of many a childhood, has a natural habitat confined to northern Syria and southern Turkey, centered near the city of Aleppo. With the use of agricultural toxins and the Syrian civil war, it is feared that the golden hamster will soon be extinct in the wild. The recent devastating earthquake, also centered near Aleppo, may prove to be the coup de grâce.
RICHSKI is retired from a career as research scientist and educator. He currently resides in the twilight zone between scientific rationalism and poetic lunacy. His writing often has a spiritual or supernatural theme. Recent stories appeared in Uppagus, Esoterica, and RavensPerch.