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The Second Summer
Words and Images by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams
She stood barefoot in her driveway. While wrapping the body of the dead rabbit in a plastic shopping bag she pondered the stars. It was sometime after 4 a.m. She was swaddled in the bathrobe that she affectionately named Harry. It was dark blue, she had to roll the sleeves up around her small wrists, the hem dragged the floor, one pocket was hanging loose, and the terry cloth weave had given way to something that resembled the pelt of an unkempt Airedale. She only wore it when she was sure no one would see her except her children. Most men found it objectionable; perhaps hanging on her bedpost it reminded them of the shadow of an old hairy lover, a large man with big hands and feet. Perhaps they imagined that it belonged to her ex husband. In truth, it had never belonged to anyone but her.
Holding the lifeless little corpse away from her body she padded up her driveway and inspected the rabbit’s silhouette. She could see the shape of the body. The hair along it’s back was smashed against the thin white bag. She could see clearly that it had grey down close to the body but also longer hair that was brown, black and white on the edges. Rigor mortis had set in and one of the rabbit’s feet was frozen at an odd angle. Its tiny toenail pierced the bag. She shuffled over to the large trashcan, in one swift motion, she lifted the lid with one hand and easily disposed of the body with the other. The graceful arc of the bag was punctuated by a plastic thud as the small body hit the bottom of the galvanized tin. She thought, with a little shame, that she should probably have buried the body. It doesn’t seem right to put such a beautiful wild animal in a common plastic bag and let it rot in a landfill. It seemed wasteful and callous. She hoped the garbage collectors would come before the smell was noticeable.
She whistled for the dog like a human siren. In her best Elmer Fudd voice she says, “Did you till dat pwetty wabbit?”. She rubs his head between his ears. He had never killed anything before. Part of her was a little bit proud of him. She watched him pee on the pole topped with a seldom-used basketball hoop. As he lifted his leg he returned her gaze with a questioning sincerity. They had a long-standing intimate relationship. He followed her throughout the day watching everything with an air of approval like a privileged overseer. There was no question; he loved her, even when she wore that bathrobe, and she loved him in spite of his recent homicidal spree, willful disobedience, and shedding problem.
She walked inside the split-level house and shut the door. In the gloom of the early morning she thought that maybe she could slip her body back between the sheets and return to the land of nod. It was a bit unsettling to find a dead rabbit in the driveway at 4 am. There were so many ways she could interpret it as a sign spun into a story if she let her imagination wander. Maybe it was a message from the neighborhood association, like a horse head in the sheets, that she needed to mow her yard more frequently, pay her dues on time, or curb the incessant barking of her dog. One guilt fed and nourished the other. What if there was another one tomorrow? What if the body had been in pieces? What if her ex-husband had left it as a token of his anger? Fear and catastrophic thinking begin to crowd her thoughts. She recognized that her chances of sleeping were slim with such thoughts as bedmates.
She tried to think of the positive aspects of the situation. She was relieved that the dog had urged her to get up and let him outside. His morning routine was hard-wired. He never had accidents in the house. He had trained her to open her eyes as soon as she heard the clicking of his toenails on the floor. If she hesitated he would stand at the end of the hall and bark softly until she acquiesced. Normally, she would just open the front door and shoo him out, but the odd lump in the driveway drew her outside. He must have killed the rabbit the night before. She felt relief that it was a discovery she made and not one made by her children. They were both so tender hearted. It would have been an ordeal. They probably would have demanded a burial ritual of some sort followed by a few words about the life of the rabbit. They probably would have wrapped it in one of her cup towels. She guessed that they would even put flowers on the grave of the rabbit. She could imagine the entire event with her children and the dead rabbit.
They had seen so little in the way of death. The only thing that had died in their lives was their old terrier. He had died shortly after they moved to the split-level. Living “in town” was a new experience for them. They had spent all of their life in the country, living in a converted barn, sheltered from neighbors by dying trees and fields of corn. After eight years she grew tired of the isolation, mice, bats, silverfish, and mud. The peeling paint, weeds, and rusted bits of farming equipment no longer felt quaint and charming. Her husband was never going to change. He was never going to help her paint the barn or weed the flower beds. He was never going to clean the toilets, shop for groceries, or help with the children. She longed for order, nosy neighbors, container gardens, plastic, a different parnter and exciting sex. She decided one night during a muddy and miserable spring that she never loved the barn, and her husband never loved her. In May, when the Japonica bush was blooming, she divorced, moved into town, rescued an old dog from the city pound, and bought a mini-van. She left almost everything from her old life behind except her children and her faithful terrier.
She tried hard that first summer to shield her children from the tiny horrors of suburbia. Their new life was filled with grief and excitement. Her children were alarmed one evening by the drunk neighbor listening to music in his lounge chair and loudly spouting philosophy at the end of their street. She closed her doors, shut the windows and turned up the television. It was an uncharacteristically passive response. In August, when the large man knocked on the door menacingly to sell them newspapers twice in the same week she told her children to quit looking through the windows and go play in their rooms. Eventually they all got used to the occasional drunken vitriolic rants of the neighbor and strangers knocking on their doors. The worst real danger was the neighbor two houses away.
He was a “financial advisor”. On most evenings he would circle the block with his Great Pyrenees. If she was watering her flowers as she did most nights in the summer, he never failed to stop and chat her up in the driveway. She could usually see him coming. The distance between their houses was so small that going inside to avoid him seemed rude. The children loved his giant white dog, but his leering in that lonely way felt slightly threatening. The neighborly chats only happened when his wife worked late. She always tried to steer the conversation back to his dog’s chronic bladder infection and away from her personal life. He was always offering to help her in the yard or tutor her daughter in math. She lay in bed thinking about the neighbor. She asked herself, “Why? Why do I care what he thinks? Why do I always play nice with men who are creepy? Why can’t I just tell them to go to hell and get off my lawn? Why can’t I be honest without feeling guilt?” There was something grey and greasy in her gut about Ted. That tug, the need to shield her children from his presence, especially her daughter. It was a maternal alarm muted and softened by layers of thick gut and belly fat. Seeing him always makes her saliva taste slightly metallic. Her body knows he is not safe; sometimes she had difficulty trusting her body’s signals.
Moving into town, sleeping in the house with only her dog and children she felt an incredible sense of vigilance. Sometimes it was overwhelming. She nearly always felt like the safety of her children was beyond her control. Motherhood, birth, and a series of unfortunate miscarriages had taught her that control was an illusion. She knew her body could easily betray her. Her body could send signals that all was well when in fact things were precarious. She rolled over and tried not to think about her neighbor or her body, but instead she thought about the body of the dead rabbit. She thought about the lawnmower and the rabbit wars.
The rabbit wars began shortly after she purchased the brand new push mower. Initially, she used a mower that she bought at a yard sale for only a couple of bucks, but finally the bent blade and the duct taped handle became sources of deep frustration. So many things had happened since the divorce. So many things had been sources of deep frustration in her life for so long. The chipped dishes, her second-hand vacuum cleaner, the dull knives and mismatched sheets all reminded her of her ex husband. He never cared about domestic tidiness or other people’s impressions. She wanted to discard all of the bits imperfect second hand domestic flotsam and jetsam like she had him. But could only afford to rid herself of these annoying things one at a time. Slowly she was learning to make a new life as a single mother with new things and new skills.
The ball of anger deep in her stomach made up of resentment waxed and waned like the moon. Gin seemed to help. During fits of grief, when she was alone, she had not allowed her self to wallow. She would not feel sad about the divorce. She would not feel sad that her ex-husband had the children for the weekend. It was her idea. She wanted to be alone. She would remind herself that women in her family do not wallow in self-pity. They suck it up and move forward. Self-pity is not helpful. She would not allow time for her own grief, only the grief of others. The women in her family were true passive-aggressive martyrs in the worst sense of the word. Her maternal grandmother had been a single mother. Her grandfather, who she always thought was dead walked out when her aunt was only six weeks old. Her own mother had told stories about saving A&P green stamps, eating hamburger only on special occasions, and sewing her own clothes. Her paternal grandmother had been the daughter of a war widow with four children during the depression. There was no time to wallow. Her grandmother had been the only daughter and had taken on nearly all of the domestic responsibilities so her mother and brothers could work. She told stories about hunting rabbits and squirrels after school with a .22 so that she could have meat on the table when everyone came home. Both her parents had grown up in hard scrabble homes where independence and self-reliance were praised.
Instead of wallowing in the absence of her children she purposely filled her time alone with projects around the house to stave off self-pity. The new mower, a nice shiny distraction, was orange. The color was bright, delicious and familiar like her grandmother’s uranium-tainted fiesta ware. It was nostalgia that made her choose the mower, not practicality or function. The large back wheels reminded her of the Yazoo mower her father proudly owned when they lived in the little brick house. After he finished running it over the pinecones, dirt, and sparse patches of grass in his Jesus sandals he would sit in a webbed aluminum lawn chair and drink a Budweiser by the makeshift sandbox. Usually, he would let her have a sip of his beer. In her mind Budweiser would always be linked to some synaptic taste circuit consisting of summer, cut grass, dirty toes, gasoline, man sweat, and gritty plastic baby pools. It was like the mower embodied the sprit of her father, a man she deeply admired. No one had ever lived up to his reputation in her heart. She knew he would always be there for her no matter what happened. In hindsight her second husband seemed like an incompetent self-absorbed navel gazer compared to her father. Her father was driven, ambitious, and could fix nearly anything. He had taught her how to be self-sufficient. Because of her father she could fix small engines, build book cases, and do simple plumbing. He had given her a nice set of tools when she went away to college. She still had the box and nearly all of the tools in her garage.
She thought back to the orange mower. The first time she used the new mower was not the first time she realized that rabbits were a hazard. She filled the tank of the mower with gasoline, pushed in the primer bulb, and moved the black throttle up from image of a turtle to the image of the hare. Looking back perhaps she should have seen those white silhouettes on the handle as a sign of things to come.
It always took three yanks to get the impotent pull string to ignite the engine, suck, squeeze, bang, blow. After the mower started, she paused and tried to clear her thoughts; she wanted to enjoy the act of cutting her grass with the new machine. There was a cold beer in the icebox that she had purposefully chilled to drink as a reward after she was done mowing. She recalled the way that her body was flooded with relief and euphoria the first time she used that orange mower. The realization that she owned the yard—all of it, the little patch of homogenous turf belonged only to her. It made her feel as if she had really escaped from her former life. The cast-off old lawnmower sitting unused in the garage seemed like an obvious metaphor for her former marriage. The new one, in spite of the cost, made her happy. It was clean and powerful, and without any mechanical flaws.
She slowly placed both of her hands around the handle of the mower. The vibration of the engine made her palms tingle. The thin veil of wet green mulch shooting efficiently from the chute was mesmerizing. Marching back and forth proudly in the sun she wondered how people made their lawns look like baseball fields. The dog monitored her progress from a safe distance on the deck with his yellow eyes. He was always alert and watching like a paranoid criminal. In her peripheral vision she noticed a small flicker by the hedge.
She cut the engine and walked over to investigate. A baby bunny staggered from under a bush into the wide expanse of the yard. The creature looked bewildered and confused. It was wet with dog saliva. She wondered why the dog hadn’t killed it. The small wet rabbit meandered off and slipped under the shed out of sight. She started the mower and looked back at the dog sitting on the deck. Was he panting or smiling? The dog had poor hunting instincts; for hours on end he would sit in the driveway and bark at the neighbor’s bird feeder. Cardinals, despite the fact that his eyes only had yellow and blue cones, and he was unable to see the color red, particularly upset him. His favorite pastime was trapping chipmunks in the rainspouts. This activity often occupied whole chunks of his afternoons. She scolded him half-heartedly, turned her attention back to the ocean of grass, pushed the mower and chewed another row down.
Two rows later an unfamiliar vibration traveled through the blade of the mower up the handle into her hands. It felt like she had run over a soft apple. She released the safety bar and the mower fell silent. From beneath the shiny orange steel crawled another baby rabbit; half its face was sheared off. She could see its skull. A cold wave of mild panic made her stomach throb. She looked behind her at the row of mowed grass and saw the tell tale hole camouflaged artfully with grass and belly fur from a mother rabbit..
Early in the first summer at the split-level house a mother rabbit killed her Terrier. As a result she learned that does don’t appear to be attentive mothers or dedicated partners. Female rabbits are polygamous, induced ovulators. The act of the male mounting them induces the production of an egg and nearly guarantees pregnancy. They could become pregnant again just 24 hours after giving birth. Mother rabbits make small nests for their babies and only visit and nurse them twice each day. They avoid the nests for fear of attracting predators. The rabbit kits gestate alone at the bottom of the warm shallow dens for about three weeks. They grow fur, open their eyes, ingest milk and harbor parasites. The reason she knew this information about baby rabbits was because of parasitic botflies.
Sometime in April in the throes of the divorce negotiations, the larvae of a botfly had infested the body of the small old terrier as he sunbathed in the new yard. Her loyal companion died in June only a month after her divorce was final. She and the dog had been together for fourteen years. Her marriage lasted only twelve.
Botflies put their eggs on the body of mammal hosts or occasionally hide them on common houseflies or some other miserable parasite like ticks. Larvae hatch from the eggs upon contact with the mammalian host and burrow into their hairy skin. At first, the lump on her dog’s side looked like an old tick bite. Then the small mass grew and grew. At the time she thought it must be a fatty tumor. He was nearly 21 and age was slowly consuming him. His teeth had been the first bits to deteriorate leaving him with deathly breath. In spite of this she loved that dog until the day he died.
One afternoon after the divorce she was sitting on the floor rubbing his belly. Her children were playing cards nearby. She took a special interest in the lump. Using just her fingers she massaged the lump and bravely pressed on it. There was a small bloody hole in the center and to her surprise with more pressing a large meaty white worm emerged in tact. Her children watched with horror and fascination. The dog had lain still while she eased the worm out of his skin. It was like a scene in a bad science fiction movie. The worm was still alive and wriggling between her two fingers. Her son had burst into tears. Her terrier died two weeks later. The entire experience of the worm and the terrier’s death had traumatized them all. Her children were devastated. The worm had migrated through the body of her dog causing serious neurological damage before it settled into a warble beneath his skin to grow into the small terror that emerged. She hated the rabbit holes in her backyard knowing that they might harbor such nasty parasites.
The grisly experience with the injured baby rabbit would taint the joy of her new mower. The red blood from the mauled kit contrasted perfectly with the green summer grass. A feeling of powerlessness came over her; she couldn’t let the hapless animal suffer but she didn’t know how to kill it. The sun was warm on her dark hair. She was glad her children were not home. Mowing over baby rabbits was the stuff of nightmares. The small body writhed in the grass injured and bloody. It would take hours for death to release it from suffering if she didn’t intervene.
Cars began streaming into the Baptist church parking lot behind her house. People were arriving for the morning service. Part of her hoped some kind church goer would notice her distress and help her kill the rabbit. She cursed and paced around, muttering to herself, “Oh God, oh God.” She was an atheist, and in her heart of hearts she knew that there was no god to help her. She considered the different ways she could hasten the small creature’s demise. Her own cowardice was repulsive. She could never bring herself to bludgeon it to death with a rock or a hammer. There was an axe in her shed. Beheading the creature would have been merciful, but it was so tiny and the axe seemed large and violent. The old running shoes she had donned for mowing were too soft to mash the bunny skull in the yielding grass and dirt.
She trawled her memory for a method that would work. Her own mother would never have mown the grass or been capable of killing anything. Her father always handled anything involving creatures or outside chores. For a moment she thought of putting the bunny in the freezer the way she had killed butterflies as a child. Once, her aunt had scooped up a rattlesnake she found in her basement and frozen it in a Folgers coffee can; it seemed a good death for a snake or a bug. While this way of killing something was invisible and bloodless, it was also too cruel a method for the killing of a warm-blooded baby animal that was suffering. Her father would just ring its neck. She could picture him swinging the small animal above his head whipping the vertebrae in a wide arc until they separated.
Once, when she was twelve, he saved four baby rabbits from a forest fire somewhere in Hyde county. He brought them home and like any eager 12 year old girl she fantasized about raising them and taming them. Images of Hamilton Luske’s beautifully drawn Snow White dancing with rabbits and birds figured largely into her daydream. She made a pablum and stayed awake all night watching them at the bottom of the cardboard box. Every few hours she tried to feed them with a cloudy plastic eyedropper. To keep them warm she had clipped a chicken light to the side of the box and given them an old towel. She fell asleep next to them on the floor in the bathroom. Two of the rabbit kits were singed badly; they died in the first few hours. The other two survived. Two days before the Saturday she and her father had picked to release them one of the rabbits began convulsing in her lap. Her father quietly put down his paper next to the blue leather recliner and eased the rabbit onto one of his palms. “Daddy what’s wrong with it?” He said nothing. She knew what his silent resolve meant. She followed him through the screen porch to the back yard. He told her to stay on the porch and looked her squarely in the face, “It’s not right, it won’t survive. You have to kill it so it won’t suffer.” In one graceful motion he tenderly broke the slender neck of the small beast before she could protest.
She knew that she would probably make the maimed rabbit suffer more if she tried to kill it the way her father had done on that late afternoon when she was twelve. Squatting down, she looked at it bleeding in the grass. It was terrified and in such pain. That is when the way she would kill it came to her in a moment of queer clarity.
The long sad face of Virginia Woolf, with rabbit ears flashed in her mind’s eye. Drowning seemed like a gentle death. She could imagine Virginia Woolf’s regal head bobbing in the waves of an angry grey sea, the tips of her long ears slowly disappearing under the surface of the ocean. Rationally she knew that this whimsical image was somehow inappropriate, a distraction from the horror at hand. Empirically she reminded herself that Woolf actually drown in the Ouse river with rocks in her pockets and there was probably no bobbing or rabbit ears. The bunny was still writhing. She still had to kill it. She knew what to do.
While she searched for a bucket in the shed she imagined taking a swim in the ocean when she became too old to live alone. Her death would involve a long swim in the warm Atlantic out to the horizon, perhaps during a tropical depression. First, she would walk for miles on the wind whipped beach. This would come after she consumed a bottle of wine and maybe some olives. She would write long letters to each of her children, leave her rings on the table, walk down the beach, remove her clothing on the shore, and do a drunken breast stroke out past the white caps seeking a merciful riptide. Her body would wash up weeks later somewhere on the shore of Mauritania. In her mind it was perfectly preserved and her head would rest peacefully on the white sand in a halo of silver hair.
In her heart of hearts she knew that in the end she would probably be too much of a coward to take her own life. She would be helpless and at the mercy of others just like the baby rabbit. Her suicidal musing was romantic nonsense. There would be no one with an axe or a rock. She knew it was more likely that her last days would probably be spent cocooned in the feeble gray sheets of a hospital bed in an inexpensive nursing home somewhere in the Midwest. With her luck she would die in the winter looking out onto an icy parking lot and smelling like urine.
She found the blue mop bucket in the garage, not in the shed. This bucket had been part of her cleaning supplies since graduate school. It was such a simple thing, sturdy and dependable; built to last. Always it belonged to her. Throughout her marriage she had used it for all kinds of unpleasant domestic tasks. She turned on the hose and filled the bucket. The water was warm from the sun; it smelled like rubber. The emerald hose, like the lawnmower was new.
Setting the old blue bucket full of water ritualistically in the middle of the yard she walked over to the mower, and scooped up the bloody baby rabbit. It stared at her with the eye that was left. She covered it with her left hand. It was warm and sticky. Terror made it lie still. After pausing for a minute to gather her resolve she plunged it gently into the water and held it under with her bare fingers. It kicked furiously. She looked away and prayed for it to take a breath. “Give in and die” she thought. There was an intense tenacity in the motions of the rabbit. The small beast thrashed, its tiny toenails made a muffled scratching sound against the thin plastic. Finally, she felt it go limp. A bloody string of bubbles broke the surface of the water. A quick wave of nausea blew through her body as she let go of the rabbit and rose holding the bucket with her right hand. Her left hand dripped and dangled limply and heavy by her side. She thought to herself, “The right hand for clean tasks the other for those that are unclean.”
The next problem was easier to resolve. It made her feel more in control. It was a task she could do alone. She needed to dispose of the evidence of the tiny suburban homicide. With gallows humor she mused about the fact that disposal was common problem for all killers. Humor was her companion when all else failed to calm her. If she buried the body in the backyard her dog would unearth and transform it into a macabre chew toy. Intestines trailing in the grass and finally skin turned to hide picked clean by ants. She was too lazy to dig a hole.
The only place it would be safe from her dog and the children was at the base of the old blue spruce. The needles and long branches that skimmed the grass kept everyone at bay. It must have been planted when the house was built in 1977. It was a perfect giant Christmas tree. The trunk would have made a lovely maypole. With her knees in the dirt she gingerly lifted a prickly branch with her wet hand and threw the water and dead baby rabbit onto the dirt and needles under the tree. She wondered if anyone from the church parking lot had seen the life and death drama play out. She was sure the body of the baby rabbit was still there. The branches, an evergreen hem, still hid from view that one nasty little secret from her first experience with the orange mower.
She thought about the second rabbit corpse; it was wrapped in plastic at the bottom of her trash bin safe from her children and dog. Why didn’t she just throw away the mauled baby kit? It would have been so much easier. It seemed like her life had been full of dead rabbits. She still felt as if her hands weren’t clean after scooping up the corpse in her driveway. It was a delusion. She hadn’t even touched the body.
All of her rabbit experiences ended in some horrible twisted way. Were these ubiquitous creatures her curse like on the Isle of Portland? Their species unmentionable to residents… those long eared, furry things that shall not be named burrowed into walls of rock. Their efforts causing the man made walls to crumble and crush the men on the island.
In her mind flashed the image of three hares that shared three ears but each had two; a Buddhist or Islamic symbol taken later by the Christians and Jews as it traveled by pots and tapestries along the silk road. The pagans and early Christians thought rabbits were magical hermaphrodites capable of procreation without sex. Some early Christians thought rabbits to be symbols of sexuality and sin, as a symbol of Mary Magdalene; a fallen woman before she met Christ. In other places the three hares with three ears represent the trinity or Mary’s virginity. Mary wasn’t a virgin she thought as she smiled in the dark. Each of these images flashed across her consciousness. It was only a matter of seconds but lost in these thoughts time passed slowly as sleep eluded her.
She rolled on her side, the old blue robe twisted around her knees. The sheers blew inward and her room was filled with the soft sounds of crickets, morning birdcalls, and occasional cars. She thought again of the dead rabbit from her driveway wrapped in used shopping bag, easily hidden at the bottom of her trash bin. It was a large rabbit. Was it pregnant? Was there a small hole in her yard with kits that would perish because of her dog? She felt another wave of guilt. Her children slept soundly across the hall in their bunk beds. The dog turned circles in the kitchen, his bladder empty, he was hunting for the perfect indention or smell in order to get comfortable. As she drifted off to sleep she decided that later she would search the yard for rabbit holes and orphaned baby bunnies.