I. The Cage

I was born in the cage. When I started to remember things vaguely, the small cage was always there. I liked it because I had inexhaustible food every day in a plastic basket at the corner and ice-cold water in the tiny red bottle that sat snugly besides my hammock. Oh, my hammock! I used to put tons of cotton on it to make a puffy and cozy bed and storage for the corn kernels and watermelon seeds I loved. The warmth within it was the silent lullaby that sang me to sweet dreams every day.

I knew deep inside that my cage was a world within a world. I could hear muffling human voices and tinging sounds from some distance away in the morning each day. The smell of baked corn and wheat often lulled me from my sleep, but the jealousy would disappear when I nibbled at the maize grains I stored. I could see the shapes of my owner and her child moving across a larger space, bending down, standing up, strolling around, and rushing here and there. Sometimes, the moving mosaics would disappear behind a giant wooden board. When they did so, streams of glaring light would pour into my home and heat my body as well as my hammock. The warmth they provided was a thousand times greater than what I generated from my body inside the cotton.

I was fascinated with the taste of the sunbeams…

II. The Light

One day, I woke up from the intensive vibrance in my cage. The child had brutally torn my house apart and was sweeping all the wooden bits below my hammock into a small basket. My food container was turned upside down, my precious food scattered on the floor and mixed with the rotten wooden bits. The bottle was tilted toward one side, and water was dripping out and humidifying the cage. Before I could react, the child had yanked me out of the cotton and placed me in the colder corner. After she walked away with bits of cotton fiber stuck to her hands, I saw a considerable space between the cage: it was the first time I had seen a space that wasn’t filled with stripes! Shaking from the sudden cold, I got rid of the remaining cotton from my body and crept toward it. With the fuel provided by curiosity and the desperation for warmth, I tried putting my head through the hole first. It went through perfectly. Then, my body went through, too, followed by my pointy tail.

For the first time, my vision was clear. A new world was lying in front of me, ready to explore. The ground was no longer made of loose wooden bits but something much firmer and smoother.

Then I saw it, a crack of light! I wiggled my body through the space in excitement. The board creaked slightly and became still again, but I had no time to pay attention to these details as I stepped onto a boundless land of white and grey mosaics.

My whole body now was immersed in the silent roar of the blazing fireball above. I could feel my fur became hotter as if it was about to burn. The whole view around me was illuminated. It was so bright that when I closed my eyes, the shapes of my surroundings could still be seen in the darkness. Above me, there were no more bars, only a white ceiling at what felt like a million meters from me. The warmth of the fireball satisfied my body from head to tail.

I took in a huge chunk of sweet air. Fresh and clean, without the repulsive smell of the wooden bits. The odor from my surroundings mixed with the warm smell of light and teased my nostrils. How I wished to stay in the sea of light and aurora forever!

As I was compelled to leave the world of light due to hunger, I saw the child standing in front of my abode. She had kneeled and searched carefully for a while, poking at the hammock and turning the bottom of the cage upside down. Then she ran from the cage shouting urgently, “Mom! The hamster was gone!”

I was about to cross the vast space in front of my cage when a large hand grabbed me in between, “It’s here, honey. Don’t worry.” My owner held me in front of the child who was wiping her eyes and sobbing; “It just ran away when you forgot put the cage together.”

I kicked. Her hands were so tight that I was suffocating. My teeth were buried into her fingers. “Ouch!” Her finger loosened its grip, but she still held me in her palm. “Bloody hamster!” She walked towards the cage –how small and dark it was in the corner – and threw me back in.

The space without the bars was gone. I could feel the warmth on my body fading as it permeated my cold surrounding. I climbed onto the hammock, hoping that the new-placed cotton could trap the smell of the fireball permanently.

III. The Escape

For the first time, my cotton had failed me. No matter how deep I buried my body within in, the generated warmth couldn’t satisfy me anymore.

I was desperate to return to the land of mosaics and see the fireball again with my own eyes, but once I thought about leaving my unlimited food and the cage that I had spent my time in for three years, I hesitated. I knew my owner and the child were like guards for me, even though they were brutal sometimes. Was it worth risking my stable life that I could still bare?

But as time moved on, I could no longer bear the cage. Dissatisfaction started to creep into every corner of my soul.

It’s not only because the light would not even bother to visit unless it was compelled to do so through the opening board, but also because the space was so tiny that I could stroll around it in lease than five seconds. I began thinking about the boundless land of mosaics that had stretched to the horizon and the sun’s continuous embrace of my being. The hammock now seemed so cold and stiff compared to the gentle leaves and breeze I had seen outside that I couldn’t sleep well during the day.

I hated how the naughty child blew wind into my cage and made me as cold as ice, the accumulating warmth throughout the night disappearing in just a second. I wanted to leave the smelly bits of wood that my owner forgot to change and embrace the fresh and tasty air outside. I wished to go through the board again to look for the warmth I endlessly craved!

I stared at the bars for hours, hoping that the mysterious space could somehow reappear. I stared at it for so long that I could feel an invisible hand coming from my gaze and tearing the bars away with all my strength…

And it did!

I blinked my eyes in amazement. The space between the bars was indeed widened. I rubbed my eyes with my paws. I was awake. No; not dreaming. So I tried my head first. It passed through without any effort. Then I wiggled my body through the bars. Then my pointy tail. For a second time, my sight was cleared, and I couldn’t resist my excitement to go through the distant board.

When I was crawling through the larger space in front, I heard an astonishing gasp, “Mom, the hamster is out!” My heart shattered like it was made from ice, into a thousand shards. My owner rushed towards me and grabbed me in her hands. Her fingernails buried into my fur. I tried to bite her furiously like before, but this time she was smart enough to avoid my teeth.

Then the stripes reappeared in front of my eyes…“Weird,” I heard her murmur, “There are no openings and no damages to the bars. How could it get out?”

Didn’t the bars become wider? I thought. Just then, a sharp pain was coming from my body. I curled up desperately. The pain was now all over me. My head, my chest, my ribs, my legs. It was so painful that the whole world had turned black. I could hear the pounding of my heart and the heavy breath from my nostrils. Maybe… Maybe the bars didn’t become wider.

My eyes were bulging. They could pop out of my eye sockets at any second. I could feel the bones in my body. Broken, shattered even.

Maybe I just squeezed myself through the narrow bars.

There was no time to figure out the truth. The desire for freedom was so strong that I carried my substantial body towards the bars once again. I tried my head. A sharp crack echoed within my skull, and the pain almost made me collapse. Blood was bleeding out of my nose, ears and the corner of my mouth, but I continued to push through.

Then the stripes disappeared from my sight. I took a deep breath. The air was full of the sweetness of freedom and the taste of blood. I knew that the light behind the board was waving at me now. I push my body and my back legs hard. Suddenly, the pain disappeared from my body like a gust of wind, and I felt as though I couldn’t feel happier or lighter.

When I was out of the wooden board, a familiar yet different sight appeared. My eyes were now like palettes, engulfed by the colored world around me. For the first time I could differentiate the mosaics on the ground and in the sky: they were no longer solely different in brightness but also in appearance. The mosaics beneath my paws contained 10 types of colors, and the high ceiling was another kind, decorated with puffs of cotton. I took a deep breath as if I wanted to drain the air around me. The salubrious fragrance from the color around me went straight down to my stomach and stayed there to ferment. The warm-colored fireball was once again baking my back, and I enjoyed the refracting light through the dew on the serrated mosaics in comforting colors.

I took all of the sceneries in my eyes hungrily. I kept smelling because I wanted the feeling of freedom and warmth to permanently linger within my body. Everything around me was like a miracle. So unrealistic that I couldn’t believe it was the truth. I immersed myself in the dazzling light that whitened my surroundings and shielded me like a bubble. Let the warm light fill me up!

IV. The Gaze

Then I saw a rusty cage near the garbage bin, a bleeding hamster between the bars. I stared at it in amazement as if I was God looking down upon me from a third -person perspective. Was that poor creature really me? I wondered.

Yes. Yes. I am you. The bleeding hamster hissed in silence. The blood dripping from the corner of its mouth was the same color as the fireball in the sky. But you are not me

The dead hamster’s half-opened eyes were like two black holes, dragging me back into and trapping me forever inside the mortal flesh, the immortal prison. I looked at the dead and hallow eyes directly. We were incompatible now like oil and water. After all, how could a freed spirit blend with imprisoned mortal flesh? As the fireball continuously shone down upon me, I felt myself fusing with the beams and becoming brighter and brighter; the eyes of the hamster became darker and darker.

I was not afraid of its pulling gaze because I knew I would escape from it, no matter how many times it tried to trap me in. I knew I would eventually overcome the restraints of the bars and the flesh in the search for freedom and light.

How could I fear the darkness when I was with the brightness? When I aimed at the distant sky and the reachable light, how couldn’t I escape the shackle of the mortal?

Zixuan Zheng, the rising senior student of Huafu International, Guangzhou, Guangdong of China. Her pieces have been featured in magazines, newspapers and on Teen Ink, The RavensPerch, and Medium. Three-time junior golf champion in California. Enjoys making friends from around the globe through playing golf and via creative writing.