I found the bunny by a fence. It was dead. I checked its body for wounds. Nothing. It just died. Most likely from the elements. I wrapped it in a plastic garbage bag and threw it in a dumpster.
Precedent. The rabbit in stories is fast. Fast and quick and prideful. A blur of fur rushing from place to place, confident in its grace and ability. Only, it can also be lazy and easily distracted. When my grandmother called my brother saying she had an uninvited guest that needed catching I thought we’d have a chase. I thought we’d have to split and corner and eventually race the rabbit around the house and through the yard, under sheds and into stacks of wood, and only when it grew tired and exhausted—only then, would we catch the intruder.
Precedent. Another yard, another bunny, another race. Over the hedge. Into bushes. Around a shed. Across a lawn. Under a wagon. Into the shade of a tree. And repeat. From tree to wagon to lawn around the shed through the bushes and over the hedge and repeat. Over the hedge, into the bushes, around the shed, across the lawn, under a wagon. And. Stop. The bunny had stopped, unable to run. Cornered and afraid.
I crouched low and grabbed the scruff of its neck. I held it tight to my body. Its small heart pounding, pounding, through its fur. Feeling glorious and alive in the moment of my victory, I was quickly left with a conundrum: now what?
When I was six I said, “I don’t want to eat a bunny.” The table had been set. Dinner was served. I went hungry. Is there a difference between a bunny and a jackrabbit? My brother Kaleb once shot a jackrabbit. He was eight. Winged it in the leg. The rabbit screamed and drew circles in a dirt road with its writhing. My uncle took the gun from my brother and finished the killing. That night, teardrops of barbecue sauce dribbled off my brother in a pattern that matched the sobs reverberating from his chest. “If you kill it, you eat it,” my dad always said. A reminder that there were consequences to our actions, so be thoughtful of living things. I watched the writhing of the rabbit go on and on, no longer jealous that my brother had shot the bunny and I had not.
Was this an aging ritual gone bad? Or had it gone the way it was meant? We learned to cherish life after all, big and small. This had been a tradition of boys, a time of giving; every time one of my three brothers or I turned 8 my dad gifted us a 22-caliber rifle. A real gun. A gun with serious consequences. This was not strange. It was not weird. It was at a time when you could drive a mile from my grandparent’s home and shoot rifles into barren hills. Those same hills are now populated by homes and people that have never had a bullet, and never want a bullet, to whiz by their heads.
Down dirt roads and into the mountains we’d drive to find a spot to shoot. It was on one of those roads that my dad stopped the truck because a jack-rabbit was sitting in the middle of the road. “Go shoot it,” My dad, or my uncle, or all of us said to Kaleb. Go and shoot the bunny. I was green with jealousy, wishing it had been me, but my brother was newly minted, newly gifted a Remington. It was his opportunity to take. He never would forget the pressure and the excitement and the screaming writhing bunny drawing circles in the dirt. You kill it, you eat it.
Kaleb looked at the caller id, sighed, and answered. “Okay, grandma, I’ll be right over.” At 84-years-old, it wasn’t uncommon for my grandma to call us on the phone asking for our assistance. My grandma lived nearby, and her calls were fairly frequent. She usually needed help with a task around her house: setting up the tv and dvd player, reaching something high, moving something heavy. My brothers and I didn’t mind, we were more than willing to help.
This time the call was about a bunny: a white and brown bunny that my grandma had spotted out her back window. Rabbits are fast and quick and prideful, but this brown and white bunny that looked so soft was not. We cornered it, my brother and I.
“You go around that way, and I’ll go this way,” I said. Inching, inching, inching closer. Quietly now. Ears twitched. The bunny looked up. It looked right at me. I froze. Large brown bunny eyes, looking right at me. I poised for the break. Muscles taut ready to chase to race to endure.
Its ears twitched again.
It took two hops—towards me? The bunny took two hops toward my feet. Leaning over I picked it up. Not fast. Not quick. Clearly, this bunny had been someone’s pet. I snuggled it close and took it to show my children.
The rabbit was soft and white and brown. Its fur was warm and smooth. It was so soft I just wanted to stroke it over and over and over again. I could feel the small heart beat and beat and beat with the pulsing blood. Its warmth travelled into my fingers and my hands, through my arms and into my chest. Its body a warm snuggle, a blessing of fragility.
Cradled in my arms. Fragile. Life. I held it like I would a child. Light enough to keep from crushing and breaking and strangling, but firm enough to keep it from escaping and running and fleeing. I called out to my kids: “Come and see what I have found.”
They came running. All three. “What is it?” They reached out with their tiny hands. They mimicked my attention and strokes of love.
“A bunny,” I said. “It is a bunny rabbit. I found it in grandma Nola’s back yard.”
“Can we keep it? Can we keep it? Can we keep it?” A repeat of threes. Three small voices. Three small beats. Three questions all the same.
No. This was not my pet. Not my responsibility. The proper thing to do was to locate the owner and return the escaped bunny. I placed the rabbit in a laundry basket and told my six-year-old to go and find some lettuce and carrots. I would call around to see who had lost their pet bunny.
No luck. No recognition. No owners. Nobody wanted a bunny. One more house to check. Down the street, but not too far from my grandma’s there was one last neighbor who might’ve lost their pet. Kaleb and I walked down the street to knock on their door.
All I knew about these neighbors was that 9 years ago their older sons had shot a BB through one of our windows to get back at my dad for chopping down a tree they liked climbing in. Every winter cold air whistled through the hole. And it was one of these same boys, now grown, that had called me just last year when my parents had been hospitalized by a serious car accident. He had stopped at the site of the accident to see if he could help.
I had been wolfing down a hamburger in the high school parking lot before I coached a boys’ soccer practice when I got the call.
“Is this Ethan,” a voice asked.
“Sorry, wrong number.”
I was just about to hang up when the voice said, “Wait. This isn’t Ethan.” It would’ve been comical if there wasn’t a hint of desperation in his voice.
The voice, panicky now, asked, “You’re not Ethan Ostraff???” At this I paused. I hadn’t even considered the fact that my youngest brother was named Ethan. But Ethan was living in the Australian Outback, how did this guy get my number?
“Ethan is my brother,” I said. “He isn’t in the country right now. Is there something I can do for you?”
“I grew up down the road. Your parents have been in a serious car accident. Your dad said to call his older son and I thought that was Ethan. I didn’t know he had another son.” My mind was swirling. A serious accident.
“How serious?” I asked. “What happened?” He explained that he had been driving down the canyon right after a car (my parent’s car) had collided with a truck going the other way. He’d stopped to help. My parents both seemed okay, both conscious, but they were being taken to the hospital. My dad had given him my number to call and said to have me tell my youngest sister who still lived at home.
A walk down the street. A knock on the door. A small boy answered.
“Do you have a pet bunny? White and brown, about yay big?” A question with hand gestures to emphasis size.
Eyes went wide. Head nodded.
“Do you still have it? I mean did it get out?”
“Do you want to see if it got out?”
From around the corner a mother’s voice. “A bunny did you say? White and brown?”
“Was it hard to catch? Did it jump right up to you?”
“It was ours, but we set it free.” Awkward laughter.
“I guess we won’t bring it back,” I said.
A conundrum. Again. How do I get myself into these situations? How many times in one’s life does a person find themselves with a stray bunny, wondering what to do? Let it go. Give it away: I tried. No takers. Eat it. You think I’m joking but I’m not. Many of my neighbors used to raise bunnies for meat.
We eat chicken, pork, and cow. They are raised for our larders, for our bellies. Someone somewhere keeps the animal from birth to death, and we eat. Without thought, we eat it. There is nothing wrong about raising rabbits for meat, nothing different from a chicken. If I eat one, I can eat the other. Awareness. I think this is what matters. Appreciation too. Life is special. If you kill it, you eat it. If you eat it, you’ve also killed it. If only those neighbors hadn’t moved. Does a pet rabbit taste different than a wild one?
I wanted to blame them, the neighbors that is, for my predicament. By “setting it free” they were condemning it to die. And yet, it wasn’t their fault alone. In a small town like Fairview the blame can always be shared. Their fault, my grandma’s fault for calling, my fault for catching it and showing it to my kids, even the city’s fault. Every summer the city celebrated the 24th of July Pioneer Days with a series of events, including a kid’s rodeo. After watching mutton busting, steer riding, and young girls doing the barrel races in preparation for the full-fledged rodeo, an announcer would call all the children down to the arena where they’d set loose a passel of farm animals—ducks, chickens, rabbits, geese—and on the count of three all the kids would chase the animals. If they caught an animal, they could keep it, much to the chagrin of their parents. I was relieved when my kids came away with a mouthful of dust and no live animals. I figured the bunny had come from the kid’s rodeo, and after taking care of it all fall and winter my neighbors had just grown tired. Who could blame them for setting it free?
I’d taken it in, but I refused to give the bunny a name. I didn’t want to know the gender. No attachments. Night approached. A soft and warm bunny sat in a laundry basket. Can we keep it? Can we keep it? Can we keep it? It’s not proper. Not our responsibility? What to do? I don’t want a pet bunny. If you kill it, you eat it. What to do?
I tipped the basket over and watched it hop away. I waited and followed. Across the lawn. Over the gravel path. Into and out of the bushes. Across another gravel path and over another lawn, to a pile of wood behind my grandmother’s house it hopped. I was satisfied. It was safe for the night.
It might not seem fair or rational to group my grandma into the category of those responsible. All she had done was notice the bunny. But she wasn’t free of blame. My grandma is a worrier—a cautious, caring soul who doesn’t always know how to draw the line. One time another neighbor’s cat came begging at her French doors with its new kittens. The cat was scraggly and starved. She “adopted it.” It surely would’ve died she had said. If its previous owners cared they wouldn’t have let it get so starved. We tried to explain that it wasn’t her responsibility or right. She should have left it outside. Feed it, sure, but don’t make it a pet. She didn’t listen. She claimed the cat, called it Boots and had me take it to the vet to be spayed. She has a way of doing things that can seem morally suspect and then making me an accomplice. I’m not sure this is intentional. I’m not sure that it is not.
She kept Boots inside but didn’t want her kittens to come in. They were wild. The kittens would pee around the house. They would scratch things up. So they left the kittens outside but created a habitat for their comfort: blankets, shelters, food, and water. Of course, these things drew in other cats. I can’t count how many hang around their house now, at least half a dozen, maybe more. I figured it was this habitat with shelter, food, and water that drew the “freed” bunny to their yard and therefore, its existence in my life was as much their fault as it was the neighbors.
Before my grandpa died, he would sit at the end of the couch, hunched over in pain, but a smile on his face. He’d try to make eye contact as you passed by, but if he couldn’t he’d reach out to grab your arm. He just wanted a minute: his eyes would twinkle as he’d pinch my arm, and with his other hand he’d shove a ruler at me. “Never give an inch, or they’ll rule ya,” he’d say and start chuckling. Who they was I never really knew. Other times he’d say, “I want to show you something,” and he’d pull out a packet of pre-folded paper cranes, separate one from the flock and hand it to me.
I never was very patient in these repetitive moments. “I know,” I’d say. Or, “You already gave me a bird.” And then I’d push past.
When my grandfather was sick, I didn’t help much. Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy is the kind of disease that devastates the human body. My cousin’s fiancé spent time—nearly every day—taking care of him. I spent most of my time trying not to think about it. My grandpa was an eccentric man. He did things that other people didn’t. He’d show up places he shouldn’t be. He’d make paper cranes and give them to anyone he could. He liked getting day-old bakery items from the local grocery store to take to people. He always had bread in his car. He helped a lot of people who needed it. But he didn’t always seem to know who needed it. I’ll never forget hearing a group of boys at my high school joking about the old man they had seen in the parking lot handing out birds and donuts. I was too embarrassed to say anything to them. I just sat in the back of the room trying not to hear. And when my Grandpa was sick, I reacted the same way. I just sat around, pretending like nothing was wrong, like I had no responsibility.
His death was a long time coming, and for weeks afterward, I kept saying that because it took so long, I was okay and that it didn’t affect me the same as if it had been sudden, but the truth was that the further away I got from the day my grandpa died, the more it resonated with me until I realized that I had failed him at the end. This realization wasn’t so easy on me.
A day after I released the bunny, it snowed. Could it survive the snow? It did. My conscience was relieved. The weather warmed up again. I watched the rabbit thrive as it created a home around my grandma’s house. In fact, it seemed to be in bunny heaven. It had sufficient food and water. It had shelter. All it was missing was a mate. My children were in heaven too. They would chase the bunny, catch it, pet it, let it go, and chase it some more. They loved the bunny. We had a pet without having to do anything to take care of it: parent heaven too.
My grandma noticed its return as well. She had set up a separate “bunny habitat” away from the cats. She told us they were frustrated by the bunny’s behavior because it wouldn’t stay in its own space. “It chases the cats away,” she said. Good, I thought. Better a bunny than a bunch of cats. It seemed like my decision to free the rabbit was a good one. If it could survive snow and cats, then it would probably live.
But bunny heaven quickly turned into a nuisance for me.
The next seven days unfolded like this: every other night my phone rang, it was always about the bunny.
The first night: “I haven’t seen the bunny in a few hours, could you check on it please?”
Two nights later: “Did you see the bunny today?”
Two days after that: “Could you feed the bunny? I’m not feeling well, could you come over and make sure the bunny has food.”
That day I’d seen the bunny foraging from morning ’til eve, but I acquiesced to the request anyway. If I didn’t do it, she would try to do it herself, and she might fall down trying to feed it.
When I opened the back door, the bunny was sitting on a woodpile, staring at me. I should club it, I thought. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I didn’t. Cherish life, I guess.
The last night: the last time I was called about the bunny she said, “Zac, could you check on the bunny. I think there was blood on the cats’ water bowl, and I think it might be from the bunny. I’m worried about it.” I was tired. It was raining. I’d already undressed for the night.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be right over.” The bunny was under the shed. It was alive. I went inside and relayed the information.
“Did you try calling for it?” Grandma asked me.
“No,” I said, “It’s a bunny, it doesn’t answer to being called.”
“Oh, okay. I thought it did.”
“Well, it doesn’t, good night.”
Snow and cold. And rain, icy with spring. The bunny lived on. One day turned into two, two days into three, three days into four. Perfection. A happy rabbit. Happy kids: a chase, a catch, a pet. Let it go and repeat. No feeding. No grooming. No responsibility. Just petting and caressing and feeling the beat of a heart pressed to your chest. All the fun.
Five days. Six days. Seven days. On the ninth day it was dead. Stiff and cold and dead. Found by the fence. Stretched out like it was leaping through the air. Dead, it looked wilder than it ever had alive. I wrapped it in a black plastic garbage bag and threw it in the dumpster.
Precedent. Weight, memory, choices, consequences.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Andrew Iverson
This story was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in our special contest issue as one of the top, overall 10 stories.