Raising Rabbits

by Kyle Mayer

I guess it started when my dad mowed up a baby rabbit. I was swinging under the apple tree from the wooden tower that doesn’t exist anymore, the one that would lift up in one corner if I swung too high, where the ants made a nest every year no matter how many times my father poured poison down the holes that left our lawn looking like worn pumice. The post had rotted through and a more modernistic viewpoint would have marked the entire tower as ‘not safe for children’ but in those days things weren’t unsafe until someone got hurt, and so I was swinging as high as I could, the corner thumping every time I reached the peak of my arc.

The lawnmower was the new red one and it sounded different than the last red one, almost like it was struggling with each breath, more of a strained whine than the shaking rumble everyone who’s ever operated a two-stroke knows and hates. I mean, until it made a wet thud and then petered out to an unexpected silence as my father released the main draw bar.

There were six of them, not counting the bits and pieces blasted out the grass shoot and strewn across the yard. If they had dug their hollow just a little deeper or maybe if momma rabbit had just one less baby they might have missed the lawn mower. Maybe my dad would have stepped on them instead and then there would be none left or maybe he would have stepped over them without noticing and continued mowing the yard as if nothing had happened. But as it stood, there were six baby rabbits, blind, bald, and bathed in the blood of a seventh.

If they had been moles, we would have wrung their necks and left them sitting on the front porch where the fence would keep the dog from getting at them, and if the cats hadn’t come by for a snack by Friday we would have tossed them out with the rest of the household trash. If they had been chipmunks, we would have grabbed the pool skimmers, small flat nets on the end of a twelve foot pole, and run to the back fence where my sister and I would use the pole like the arm of some great catapult, swinging the chipmunks in a great arc over our heads to let them fly out into the field. It was a strange sort of childish competition, who could fling them further, although without an impartial judge there were always discrepancies on how much a good bounce was worth.

But they weren’t moles or chipmunks, or spiders or snakes or bats or toads, and so, knowing full well that their mother would not return with the nest so obviously disturbed by humans, we decided to raise them.

We split them up evenly, my sister, my cousin, and I. There were always arguments about whose were whose and if you’ve ever seen a pile of blind, bald rabbits, you’ll understand. I chose the two fattest ones and on any given day whichever rabbit happened to be the fattest of the group I claimed as mine. I named them Fat and Fatter, and I thought my names were quite fitting. My cousin always had a host of archaic names ready for such an occasion like Vincent or Delbert. My sister was perhaps the most creative of us three, though I can’t even begin to pronounce the names she chose, let alone spell them. I still harbor a sneaking suspicion that the names changed on a day-to-day basis and nobody could remember them well enough to care.

I tried to feed mine grass and dandelions and weeds out of the garden with no real idea of what rabbits eat, let alone how a mother rabbit keeps babies alive. It was late August, perhaps, and there were no shortage of green and growing things in the land beyond the fence, but this was back in a time when the Internet was scarce and smart people were hard to find. It was nearly two days before Mother suggested that maybe they were thirsty instead of hungry. As bored children with new toys, we hardly left them alone during our waking hours, and providing basic necessities of life became more of an adventure than necessary. Even then it took considerable coaxing from our father to convince my sister that they preferred water to the bright pink electrolyte filled sports drink she was always carrying around but never drinking, and succeeded to feed to her rabbits more than once. Secretly, I think they liked it better than water, anyways.

I think all of our rabbits would have died if not for my sister. She didn’t really want rabbits, not the way my cousin wanted everything that was living, or the way I wanted to own something important. She wanted a dog, and not a family dog like the little white mutt we kept as a compromise between my mother’s desire for a quiet house companion to sit on her lap while she watched TV and snuggle with her at night, and my father’s need for something to keep the voles out of the yard. That dog was about as stupid as they come, and when we’d let him out to go chasing a rodent, he’d bound out the door and down the porch steps and fly across the yard to the big oak we still keep in the back because my mother loves the way it looks, even though its leaves slowly bleach and poison the pool every spring. He’d stay there for hours if we didn’t call him back in, circling the tree and barking at it, occasionally standing up onto his hind legs to push on the tree as if testing that it was still standing solid. It didn’t matter that the rodent had taken off to a different tree or bush, or left the yard altogether. Sometimes, he probably could have caught them if he had just gone for them instead of the tree because some of the rodents are just as stupid as he is, and sometimes when my parents weren’t home we’d get him all riled up and tell him about all the chipmunks we saw and he’d bark at the door, and we’d let him out and he’d take off to the oak again—only there wouldn’t be anything at all. We still loved him, though, and he was sweet and never bit nobody. To be honest, I don’t know what would have happened if he had caught one of them, anyways. But we kept him away from the rabbits, just the same.

My sister, though, she wanted a real dog. A dog of her own. And Ma and Pa kept saying no because she could never take care of the family dog and never remembered to let him out in the morning or give him food at night, and they didn’t want another mess to deal with. So this time, when she asked and Ma told her they’d see how she did with the rabbits, she bought her own alarm clock with the money she’d saved up from the allowance my parents gave us for doing our weekly chores, the money she’d been saving to feed her dog even though it wouldn’t have lasted a week. I don’t know if I admired her dedication or just resented that she still had money to spend since I never seemed to have any on hand. From that day on, she always woke up bright and early in the morning and took the dog for a walk and came back and fed the rabbits, and sometimes she’d even go and clean out the pool skimmers before breakfast. I think it was the first time our parents gave her anything better than a no.

When the fourth or fifth day came, and the newness of the rabbits wore off, and I wanted to go play in the mud down by the stream, and my cousin got an invitation to go horseback riding with one of the neighbors, the rabbits would otherwise have been forgotten. We no longer cared that we had in our charge helpless living beings that needed our aid, but my sister took care of all six of the rabbits. I guess in a way that makes all the rabbits hers.

One day, we woke up, or were woken by Mother, and in turn mirrored this treatment upon our rabbits, only to find that not all of them would wake up. Vincent went right on sleeping and mother had to come and take him away, and then our cousin complained that we both had two rabbits and she only had one. My sister, keeper of the peace, enforcer of all things left alone by the adults, gave my cousin one of her own and then things were right again.

By the time they quit huddling in a little pile and began moving around with the naive bravery youngsters have before they see something get hurt, when their eyes had been open for two weeks and their fur was grown in enough for them to look more like rabbits and less like rats, my mother decided they needed a more permanent home. She always had a way of knowing what my sister needed to hear, but I knew even then she was looking for a way to contain them. An entire litter of rabbits running rampant in our garage was going to be bad news for everybody, rabbits included.

My sister spent an entire day building a house for them. She wove cattails into fences and set up little paths between shelters that she made with leftover abalone shells, relics of a time when we still lived by the sea. Dust-crusted and faded, they looked more like exotic mushrooms than the homes of aquatic muscles. At the end of the day, it was my mother who made the real house for them. She got the giant double-ply reinforced cardboard box that the most recent lawn mower had come in and had been sitting in the attic for a year and a half because nobody ever threw away anything useful, and she lined it with the old towels we had used to soak water out of the carpet back when our basement had flooded and molded, in which case she put some baking soda down between the leaves of the blankets to help with the musty odor. My sister was disappointed, but I think the rabbits were probably happier in their box for the nights were growing chilly and the blankets held the warmth of the day much better than the sweaty slab of concrete that formed the floor of our garage.

Around that time, late into September, I had the idea to burn that fox. I carried the cans of gasoline a quarter of a mile out to its den, two at a time, back and forth. I even brought the round green can that was still half-filled with the oil-gas mixture that the old green mower used to need. They don’t make mowers like that anymore and ours hadn’t been working in five years at least, but we still have it sitting in a shed somewhere on the other side of town just like we still have the can of spoiled gasoline that’s good for nothing except lighting up a fox den.

We all knew where the den was. It was actually the dog that found it, a few years back when we had gone for a hike through the woods behind our property, but it was my uncle who set up the trail cam that got us our first look at a real fox.

By midday, I had all eight cans of gas lined up in a neat little row outside the entrance to the den. I’d spent an hour raking the leaves and twigs away from the den with my hands, turning over the earth and kicking the larger sticks away with the thinning toe of my sneakers. I took the cans and emptied them one by one down the entrance, the gasoline making a rhythmic glugging noise as the air worked its way back into the can. I even emptied the one with the push in spout that gets all covered in gas and leaves your hands smelling like it for days.

When it came time to light the den, I hesitated for a second with the box of matches in my left hand. There was no way to be certain that the fox was to blame, but I couldn’t for the life of me fathom what else might have left claw marks in the torn cardboard pieces strewn around the remnants of the box. When it came down to it, it seemed like an awful waste of hard work to have gone this far and quit now, so I struck a match and dropped it down the hole. The fire caught instantly and a narrow pillar of black smoke began pushing out of the small opening as if frightened by whatever it had left behind, and the heat could be felt without looking. But I didn’t stay to watch it burn.

When I got back, Dad scolded me for wasting so much gasoline, saying it wasn’t cheap these days. Then he grabbed the fire extinguisher from the garage and stormed off toward the forest to make sure I hadn’t started a forest fire. I wasn’t sure what he thought a fire extinguisher would do if I had lit the forest on fire, but sometimes adults just don’t seem to think things through. Ma shook her head and said a prayer for the poor fox.

We never did find out if someone left the garage door open the night before, or if one of the neighbors coming home from work in the evening had gone to open their own garage and, with those new fancy wireless openers that sometimes end up on the wrong frequency, had unintentionally opened ours in tandem as sometimes used to happen before my father ripped out the wireless transceiver that the professionals had added and replaced it with a simple light switch, just outside the door. Now anyone could get in, but they had to mean it.

Fatter was gone, so Fat became Fatter, I had one rabbit to attend to instead of two, and life went on. I cried later that night, but I don’t know to this day if I was crying for Old Fatter or the fox. Or maybe I was crying for New Fatter who no longer had his friend to snuggle with when the nights got cold.

School had long started up again, and our cousin returned home, so my sister took over the other remaining rabbit, and we put them up in separate boxes—partially because we didn’t have any more boxes that big and mostly because my sister was getting tired of taking care of my rabbits as well but didn’t want to get blamed if I let mine die.

Dad went out on a hunting trip with a family friend and they were supposed to get a deer. But the friend missed and they didn’t see another deer, so Dad never got to take a shot. At least that’s how he told it to us over dinner, but we all know he’s almost blind in his right eye and a terrible shot for it. The friend had sent Dad home with a couple of rabbits he had picked up in one of his snares, though, and Dad made a strange kind of curry with them. My sister refused to eat dinner, and even Ma told him that it was bad tact, but she ate it like the rest of us. I thought it was really good. I’ve never really liked the taste of deer, and anyways, these rabbits were already dead.

Fall was finally turning cold enough to harbor complaint when Ma suggested that the time had come to release the rabbits. It was going to be winter soon and we were going to need the garage back to park the cars, and besides, the rabbits were fully grown now and needed to learn to fend for themselves. I told her I’d keep mine in my room and she just laughed. I didn’t think it was funny. My sister wanted to let them go in our backyard so she’d be able to keep an eye on hers, and she’d know they were safe through the winter, but Ma wouldn’t go for that either. I guess she knew more about how rabbits worked than the rest of us and didn’t want the same problem with a whole new litter come next spring, but at the time it seemed like she was just being stubborn.

We finally settled for a compromise; we’d release them in a place with a fence so they’d have at least a little protection from predators, as long as it was nowhere near the house. The only place we could think of that wasn’t one of our neighbors’ yards was the old pet cemetery. I mean, nobody had been burying pets there for years, as it had all filled up a long time ago, but somebody still paid to have the grass clipped and the weeds pulled during the summer months. There was a small pond in the back and a couple of trees planted artistically amongst the gravestones, an attempt to pretend that nature still owned the engineered grass and neat rows of carved stones. A six-foot fence ran around the perimeter.

I took Fatter, who by this point was the size of a large squash and nearly as lazy, and my sister took Delbert, and we went opposite directions to say our final goodbyes in private. I took Fatter down to the pond. I knew he’d need water sooner or later and he didn’t like moving, so I thought I’d save him the trouble.

I placed him on a small shelf of earth that jutted out over the water in the shade of one of the trees, but finding myself suddenly alone, the idea of speaking to a rabbit seemed less appealing than it had a few minutes before. I probably told him to be free or something to that effect, and he probably misunderstood me.

My mother came over to see how things were going. Fatter laid his ears back flat against his head, the way he did sometimes if you pet him just right, and without warning took one giant leap and landed in the water with a splash that seemed to echo back and forth. A small ring of waves slowly decayed into ripples that spread out from the point of impact and bounced back and forth against the tiny peninsula, covered with the still-matted grass where Fatter had been resting just moments before. There was a silence while I watched the water return to a flat sheet, smoothing out the offending ripples with an almost placid motion. The water didn’t care what happened that day.

It’s going to be ok, my mother told me. He just wanted to go for a swim, he’ll climb out on the other side in a few minutes. But there were no bubbles. I turned and walked slowly back to the car, but that night I did not cry.

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