Some nights, when the rabbit and I are both down on the floor playing tug of war with his toy carrot, he will suddenly freeze in one position and stop everything, as if a great breakthrough has finally arrived. He’ll look over at me and there will be a shift, his quick glance steadying into a hard stare. I can’t escape when he does this and I have to look back. He has these albino eyes that go from a washed-out bloody pink ring on the outside through a middle layer of slushy grey before they dump you down into this dark, dark red centre. I don’t know, but sometimes when he closes in on me like that and I’m gazing down into those circles inside of circles inside of circles, I lose my way, and I feel like I am falling through an alien solar system of lost orbits rotating around a collapsing, burning sun.
Our rabbit – my rabbit now, I guess – he and I are wrapped up in something I don’t completely understand. Even when I imagine that I am reading him correctly, I know that he is reading me at the same time – and doing a better job of it – picking up on all my subconscious cues and even the faintest signals I do not realize I am sending out. It’s complicated, this back and forth. Maybe we have been spending a little too much time together lately. Maybe I have been spending a little too much time thinking about rabbits.
As a species, let me tell you, they are fickle, stubborn creatures, obsessive and moody, quick to anger, utterly unpredictable and mysterious. Unnervingly silent, too. But they make interesting company. You just have to be patient and pay close attention and try hard to find the significance in what very well could be their most insignificant movements. Sometimes it’s obvious. If a rabbit loves you or if they think you are the scum of the Earth, you will catch that right away, but there is a lot between those extremes – everything else is in between – and you can never be sure where you stand relative to a rabbit. You could be down there looking at an animal in grave distress, a fellow being in pain, or, almost as easily, you might be sharing your life with just another bored thing in the universe, a completely comfortable bunny who would simply prefer if you left the room.
Most of the time, none of this matters. We carry on our separate days and our only regular conversations are little grooming sessions during which I give him a good scratch between the ears, deep into that spot he cannot reach by himself and, in return, he licks my fingers or the back of my hand or the salt from my face.
But today is different. Today we have crossed over into new, more perilous territory and, for maybe just the next five minutes, we need a better, more reliable connection. For that to happen, he will have to do something he has never done before, move against his own nature and produce at least one clear sound with one clear purpose behind it. I need this rabbit to find words, or whatever might stand in for words. I need him to speak, right now, and tell me exactly what the hell is happening.
It is important to establish, before this begins, that I never thought of myself as an animal person. And since I do not come from a pet family, I never thought the family we were raising needed any more life running through it. Especially not a scurrying kind of life, with its claws tap-tap-tapping on the hardwood floors.
The thing you need to understand – I guess it was the deciding factor in the end – is that my wife, Sarah, is dramatically allergic to cats. Or at least she used to be. By this I mean only that she used to be my wife and then, later on, my partner. Like everybody else, we changed with the times and when the new word came in – probably a decade after we’d been married in a real church wedding – we were glad to have it. We felt like a ‘partnership’ described our situation better, more accurately, and, to be honest, we’d never really known how anybody was supposed to go around being a wife or a husband all the time.
But I’m not sure what terminology you could use to describe what we are now. ‘Amicably separated’ maybe, or ‘taking a break’, but not divorced, not there yet. The legal system has not been called in. Sarah and I are not ex-partners. We still talk on the phone almost every day and we try to keep up with the news of everybody else, but it has already been more than a year, and I have never been to her new place in Toronto, the condo on the thirty-fourth floor.
I can imagine her there though, going through the regular Saturday morning. It is probably pretty much the same as it used to be. I see her walking from one room to the next and she has a magazine or her phone in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. She looks out a high window, maybe she contemplates traffic. I don’t know. Really, she could be doing anything with anybody. Every possibility is available to her, just as it is for me, and only a few things are non-negotiable any more. Like the allergy. Unless there has been a medical procedure I don’t know about, then wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, Sarah remains, almost certainly, allergic to cats.
Her condition is medically significant, EpiPen serious, so the cat option was never there for us. And even the thought of a dog, a dog with its everyday outside demands – the walks and the ball-throwing and the fur and the drool and the poop bags in the park – that was always going to be too much, too public, for me.
If we had stayed like we were at the start, if it had been just the two of us all the way through, I think we might have been able to carry on forever and nothing would have happened. The problem was our children, three of them, all clustered in there between the ages of seven and thirteen. They were still kids at this time. It was the moment just before they made the turn into what they are now.
When I look back, I see this was the peak of our intensity together, a wilder period than even the sleepless newborn nights or the toilet training. I don’t know how we survived for years on nothing but rude endurance. It was probably something automatic, the natural outcome of great forces working through us. We were like a complicated rainforest ecosystem, full of winding tendrils, lush, surging life and steaming wet rot. The balance was intricate and precise and we were completely mixed up in each other’s lives, more fully integrated than we would ever be again.
The kids had been pushing and pushing us and eventually we just gave in. All the friends had animals, all the neighbours and the cousins. There were designer wiener dogs and husky pups with two different-coloured eyes and hairless purebred cats. It felt like there was no way to escape the coming of this creature.
We started with the standard bargain aquarium set-up and a cheap tank bubbled in our living room for about a month and we drowned a dozen fish in there. After that, there was brief talk about other possibilities, but in the end, the rabbit felt like our best option, a gateway to the mammal kingdom. Better than a bird or a lizard, we agreed, more personality, more interaction.
‘Maybe a rabbit is kind of like a cat.’ I remember saying those words.
We got him from a Kijiji ad – ‘Rabbit available to a good home’ – and the Acadian man who once owned him ended up giving him to us for free.
I went to his house and visited his carpeted basement. I learned all about the food and the poop and the shedding.
‘Is there anything special we need to do?’ I asked. ‘We don’t have any experience.’
‘You just don’t eat the guy,’ the man said. ‘Rabbits are right there, you know, right on that line.’
He made a kind of karate-chopping motion, his hand slicing down through the air.
‘You either want to be friends with them or you want to kill them and eat them for your supper. We had two other people come here already today. And I was going to take the ad down if you were the same as those bastards. I could see it in their eyes, both them guys. I could just tell. They’d have taken him home and probably thrown him in a stew, a fricot, like my grand-mère used to make, you know? Hard to look at, I tell you, when somebody’s lying to your face like that.’
I asked him what he saw when he looked in my eyes.
He laughed and bonked his temple with his finger.
‘I got no clue,’ he said.
‘All we can ever do is guess, right? No way to ever be sure about what’s going on up there. But me, thinking about you right now? Me, I’m guessing that you are not the guy who is going to kill our Gunther.’
‘Gunther?’ I said.
He crouched down and said the word three times very quickly and he made a clicking noise with his tongue.
The rabbit came flying out from beneath the sofa and went over to the man and stretched up to get his scratch between the ears.
‘He knows his name?’
‘Of course he does. Doesn’t everybody know their own name?’
‘And do we have to keep that one?’
‘You do whatever you want, my friend. After you leave here, he’s going to be your rabbit. But if you want him to know when you’re talking to him, I think you better call him what he’s always been called.’
I stretched out my hand and Gunther sniffed at my fingers, then gave me a quick lick. His tongue seemed so strange to me then. So long and dry. The tongue of a rabbit is very long and very dry.
The man smiled.
‘That there is a very good sign,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t usually happen like that. Gunther, he is usually shy around new people. Normally takes him a little while to make up his mind.’
The rabbit pushed his skull against my shin, scratching an itchy part of his head on the hard bone running down the front of my leg. I felt the change coming.
‘So we have a deal, then?’ the man said.
‘I think so,’ I said. And we shook hands.
‘And you’re promising me you will not kill him?’ He kind of laughed that part at me.
‘Yep,’ I said, and I shook my head. It was all ridiculous.
‘Maybe you can say the real words to me, right now, out loud?’
There was no joke the second time. He looked at me hard and I stared back. He had not yet let go of my hand and as we were standing there I felt the little extra compression he put around my knuckles, the way he pushed my bones together.
‘I promise I will not kill Gunther.’
‘That is very good,’ the man said and he smiled and then he shrugged. ‘Or at least, I guess that is good enough for me.’