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.’
It took maybe three weeks before Sarah and I started talking about putting him down.
‘This isn’t working,’ she said. ‘Right? We can both see that. Whatever happens – we try to sell him or we take him back or to a shelter or whatever, I don’t care – but it cannot go on like this. It’s okay to admit we made a mistake.’
The kids had already lost interest and the litter box was disgusting. We were using a cheaper kind of bedding and Gunther hated it. In the first couple of days he’d already shredded up two library books and chewed through half a dozen cords without ever electrocuting himself. There was an infection too, something he’d picked up in the move. Maybe we gave it to him, but it was horrible to look at. He had this thick yellow mucus matting down the fur beneath his eyes and both his tear ducts were swollen green and red. He hardly ate anything and instead of the dry, easy-to-clean pellets of poop we’d been promised, he was incontinent. For about a week, our white couch, the couch we still have, the couch where Gunther and I still sit while we watch TV, was smeared with rabbit diarrhoea.
It was getting bad for me too. Something in my breathing had started to change and a case of borderline asthma was settling deep into the membranes of my chest. I felt this strange tenderness blooming in my lungs – like a big bruise in the middle of me – and I was starting to have trouble walking up or even down the stairs in the mornings. We weren’t sure of the cause, yet, and it couldn’t be pinned directly on Gunther. The doctors said there were other possible explanations – adult-onset conditions – that could stay dormant in your body for decades before springing up fresh in your later life. I had my own wheezing theories, though, and I felt pretty certain that this rabbit and I were not meant to be together.
We took him to a veterinarian who couldn’t help us at all.
The guy plunked Gunther down on the stainless-steel examination table and he shone that light into his eyes and his ears and felt around, up and down Gunther’s whole body. It took less than ten minutes. Then he snapped off his purple gloves and threw them into a sterile waste basket.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to be honest here.’
He cocked his head towards the door. On the other side, in the waiting room, there were at least ten other people, all sitting there with their leashes and their treats and their loved ones.
‘I think you can see, we’re pretty much running a cat and dog shop here. You know what I mean? That’s 95 per cent of what we do. And I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of experience with the exotics.’
‘Exotics?’ I said. ‘What, is a rabbit exotic now?’
‘It is for me. I’m just telling you: I’ve given you the standard examination that comes with our basic billing package. The next step is going to be X-rays and advanced diagnostics and I don’t think you really want to go there. Not for a rabbit anyway. Not for a rabbit that hasn’t even been fixed.’
In that moment, it was almost over. Gunther was nearly part of our past. The way to a different version of the future, a new opening, was right there.
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘How about I give you the room for a little while and maybe you can have some time to think about how you’d like to say goodbye. When I come back, if you’re good with it, I can give him a little sedative that will calm everything down. Then we set up the IV and whenever you want to release the drug, that will be it; it’ll all be over in a painless, quiet, peaceful way. If he can’t eat and he isn’t drinking and he can’t see, what kind of a life is that?’
As he left the room, I watched him shifting his facial features, moving from the serious life-and-death mode he’d been using on us to the cheerful semi-annual check-up face he used for his regular clients.
I turned back to Sarah, but she was already packing Gunther up to bring him home.
‘Fuck that guy,’ she said to me.
I smiled and nodded my head. My wife does not like to be bossed around by anyone.
We took Gunther home and she got to work on the computer. Online she found a woman in the country who was kind to us, but no nonsense. She was a real farm vet – herds of cattle, giant pigs, even racehorses – and she rarely worked with pets, but she sold us the antibiotics we needed for twenty-five dollars flat and she told us exactly what to do. There were teeth problems, she said. Severely overgrown teeth, looping inside Gunther’s head, cutting him every time he tried to chew. The infection had started in his mouth. The other guy had never even looked in there.
‘It’s not pretty right now,’ the vet said. ‘And I’m not going to touch anything, but once it’s cleared a little, after the medicine has worked, you’re going to have to cut them back.’
All of this really happened to us, to Sarah and to me. For an entire week, we fed Gunther with a plastic syringe. In our food processor, we blended up this disgusting kale smoothie with the medication mixed into it. Then I wrapped the rabbit’s squirming body in a towel and held him against my chest, squeezing all four of his legs into me. His hair came out, sometimes in thick clumps, sometimes in a kind of fine translucent fuzz that floated through the room and, for sure, penetrated deep into my own body. Sarah forced open his mouth and she drove tube after tube of that green sludge into him. He tried to spit it back up, but most of it went down and the rest dribbled over his chin where it later hardened into this thick green grit in his fur.
But the drugs worked and a week later, when he had his strength back, Sarah and I switched places and did as we’d been told. She held him in the towel and I took a brand-new pair of wire cutters – purchased and sterilized just for this task – and I peeled back Gunther’s gums.
You could see it right away. It’s easy to tell when things are almost perfectly wrong. Each of his two front teeth was a brownish-yellow tusk, like a miniature ram’s horn, curved backwards almost to a full circle with a black streak of what seemed like a blood vessel flowing inside of it. I tried to imagine how things should look if they did not look like this and I tried to summon up a picture for how a rabbit’s teeth are supposed to be, although I had never seen a rabbit’s tooth before.
Then I just did it. I picked a spot and I aimed the scissor point of the pliers and tried to hit it. Gunther was furious, snorting hard through his nose. Sarah could barely hold him, but even in that moment of crisis he could not generate anything more than a cough.
‘Go!’ she said. ‘Do it right now. Now. Come on.’
I brought the cutters down on the surface of the bone and I squeezed hard and quick, but the tooth was much, much softer than I expected. There was a snap and a section an inch and a half long flew across the girls’ room. The second piece, snipped from the second tooth, was a little longer, and it nearly went down his throat before I flipped it free with the tip of my own finger. I dipped my hand in and out of Gunther’s mouth. But then it was done and Sarah let him go and he fled beneath the bed.
We were standing there together, Sarah with the soiled towel – Gunther had let go of everything – and me with the pliers in my hand and the chunks of rabbit teeth on the floor. I turned and plucked a piece of fur out of her eyebrow and I remember that she put the towel down and wiped her palms down the front of her shirt, then mine.
‘That was not what I expected,’ she said.
‘Me neither,’ I said.
Beneath the bed, Gunther remained perfectly silent. A stranger, entering the room, would not have known he was even there, and neither of us could tell if he was in agony under the mattress or if he felt any kind of relief.
‘What do we do now?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I guess we wait.’
Somehow it worked the way it was supposed to. With the medicine kicking in and his teeth fixed, Gunther returned to his regular diet of raw Timothy hay. Eventually his poop hardened up and his eyes cleared. Even the kids came back to him. They played games together now, flinging his carrot across the room for fetch, and they worked up a pretty funny matador routine. If you shook a dish towel at him and shouted ‘Toro! Toro! Toro!’, Gunther would come charging across the room and blast under the fabric. This also worked great with a pyramid of plastic cups. As soon as you built it up, he’d come barrelling through, with real strength and purpose.
When a rabbit is truly happy, they do these insane joyful leaps where they launch their whole bodies way up into the air, so much higher than you think they can go. They twist in odd ways and kick all four of their legs at the same time. It’s like one of those ecstatic convulsions you see in born-again churches when people are so moved by the Spirit they can’t control their limbs. Gunther used to do that all the time after the bullfight game or the plastic pyramid. That kind of jumping is called a binky. That is the real, technical term for it: binky.
You can never be sure, but I think that somewhere in the blur between our decision at the vet’s office and the thing with the teeth and the end of everything else, Gunther’s life fit into ours and we all almost made sense. He receded into the deep background of our existence, and took up his place in the daily sequence. Taking care of him became a set of regular tasks. Each week it was a different person’s job to change the bedding and blast the room with the Dustbuster and make sure his water and food were topped up. Allowances were paid for this labour and Gunther became a formal responsibility of the household, like emptying the dishwasher or taking out the garbage. When other things, new emergencies, claimed us – the year Sarah’s father got sick and eventually died, or the time I was laid off for eight months, or the spring when we had to take out another loan to fix the roof and repoint the chimney and replace all the gutters – I could almost forget that Gunther lived with us. Though we shared the same space, and his presence eventually put me on regular inhalers, puffers that became automatic, I still might go an entire week without actually seeing him. We were all just barely touching and it seemed like the minivan was always running in our driveway, its rolling side door gaping for the quickest possible turn-around, like an army helicopter. Sarah or I would take one step across the threshold of the front door, before we’d be clapping our hands and yelling: ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’
Back and forth through the van door, into and out of traffic. Every day and every night of the week there was some other activity. Making lunches for picky, ungrateful people: whenever I cut the crusts off a sandwich or allowed someone to return a perfectly untouched, but perfectly prepared, Tupperware container of sliced cucumbers and ranch dip, I wondered if I was loving a child or wrecking her for the future. Every morning we just barely made it to the corner for the first school bus at 7.30 and the second at 7.45. Then showering and getting your hair okay and putting on real clothes and going to work and dealing with all the stupid people at work. The stupid things that every stupid person said and did.
Piano and swimming and soccer and music and school assemblies. In an effort to spend quality time with the kids, Sarah signed up to be a Girl Guide leader. She learned all the promises and she got the uniform and we sold cases and cases of cookies. I coached a boys’ soccer team for five years, though I knew nothing about soccer in the beginning. Every morning, the morning arrived just five or six hours after we’d gone down. And every morning, when Sarah and I opened our eyes again, we were already late, already behind.
‘What is today?’ I’d ask and she’d look at me and blink and stare at me like a stranger. Then she’d turn away or look up to the ceiling as if she were reading a screen, like this was the dentist’s office and they had a news crawl running up there.
‘Wednesday,’ she’d say. ‘Wednesday is Pizza Day. No lunches. But then violin, and the after-school thing – some meeting we’re supposed to go to about cleaning up the playground – somebody has to be seen to be there. Then, if there’s time after that, please God, haircuts. Please. Everybody in this whole house needs a goddamn haircut.’
‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘You need a haircut. You look like a homeless person.’
I remember once, maybe five years ago – it was at a retirement party for a lady from Sarah’s work – and we snuck out during the speeches and fucked in the minivan, right there, doggie-style, on the third-row Stow ’n Go bench. It was ridiculous but also, absolutely, the right thing to do. There were stained popsicle sticks and food wrappers back there, headphones and Lego, even a long-lost running shoe that we were so glad to find. Sarah held it up triumphantly with one hand, even as she was unbuttoning her pants with the other. ‘At last!’ she said. ‘Remind me not to forget about this when we get home.’
The other cars just sat there by the curb under the street lights and no pedestrians ever walked by to peer through our slightly tinted windows. Inside the van, we were rushed and awkward, but we got what we came for and still made it back in time for the cake, all rezipped and smoothed out.
I don’t know what happened to us after that. There was no single event. No dramatic explosion, no other character that wandered into our lives. I think we just wore down gradually, inevitably, and eventually, we both decided we’d had enough and it was time to move on. There must have been something else – a pull from the inside or a signal from the outside – that compelled us in some way, but I’m not sure. Maybe we really did just outlive the possibilities of each other’s bodies.
But Sarah and I: we had a good, solid run and I think we came through pretty well. Three kids is not nothing and we carried those people – we carried them from their delivery rooms to their day cares to their schools and through all their summer vacations, all the way down to the fancy dinners we hosted on the nights of their high school graduations. Then, one by one, they left our house for good and, all of us, we never lived together again. Two went to universities in different cities and one moved in with her boyfriend across town and started working at a call centre.
After they left, we were by ourselves again. Together, but by ourselves now, and only Gunther stayed. The change was harder than we expected. There was too much space now and we filled it up with everything that had always been missing. Though there was no one else around, we kept getting in each other’s way. I felt like the air inside the house was thickening again, but worse now, like a clear sludge was being slowly poured into every gap in our lives. We had to slog through it every day and every exchange was more difficult than it needed to be. Neither of us would ever watch the other person’s shows and there were arguments, real arguments, about who should have the power to decide if an overhead light should be turned off or turned on. I did not like how she chewed her food, the way she incessantly talked about other people behind their backs, her selfishness. And she did not like the way I clicked my pens, the way I was always intruding on her plans, the way I started things, but never finished them. No single can of soup could serve us both.
The conditions were right when the transfer opportunity came. This was a real promotion, national-level stuff – much more money and the right kind of work, at last – the type of thing Sarah had wanted for years. She could not afford to let it pass. ‘A chance like this,’ she said, and we both knew.
After that, we started talking, quietly at first, about ‘making a change’ or implementing ‘the new plan’. We worked it all out, calm and serious and sad, and then it was decided. The job led the way, but we both knew it was more than that and we were clear about what this meant when we explained it to the kids. We needed to move on and there was no pretending any more, no fudging the truth.
‘We just want you to be happy,’ our oldest daughter said, and the line stuck in my ear because I’d always thought it was the kind of thing parents were supposed to tell their kids.
We kept the show running for four more months – one last school-less September through to one last all-together Christmas – and then we made the calls in the third week of January. Like everybody else, we wanted to get through Christmas before the chatter started. It was civil and transparent and even kind.
I drove her to the airport and we really did kiss and cry in a parking spot that is reserved for kissing and for crying.
‘We just have to do what we have to do,’ she told me.
I look at Gunther sometimes and I wonder if he is typical – if he is like or unlike all the others of his kind – the rest of the lagomorphs that populate this world. I wonder if he has even ever seen another rabbit or if he thinks maybe I am a rabbit, too. They are an altricial species – another word I have learned – born blind and deaf and defenceless, so he would have no memory of his siblings or his mother, no sight or sound to carry forward from that first phase of his life. If there is a moment in your existence when you cannot survive without another’s timely intervention – if you are like a hatchling bird fresh out of the shell – then you are altricial. When Gunther was born, he would have been a hairless three inches of flesh, a pink wriggling tube in the world, barely more than a mouth and a fragile circulatory system visible through his skin. There might have been eight or nine others with him in the litter. Maybe he still holds some faint feeling of them, the touch of other rabbits, all those teeming bodies pressed up against each other, huddling for heat. That’s another word I like: the verb, to teem. You hardly ever get to use it.
There is so much out there. I have scrolled the images on the internet and read the articles and followed the diagrams, the maps that show us what really happens if we follow them down the hole, through the warren and into the complex society they build down there, three feet beneath the place where we live. The largest and most complicated colonies can twist through hundreds of metres of tunnels and switchbacks, a path no predator could ever follow. Guided only by instinct, they dig dark mazes out of the ground, building their real working routes so that they run right beside a series of faked dead ends and false starts. Then they put in dozens of different entrances and escapes, some of them real, some of them decoys. The strategy is amazing, the fact that this level of deception, such advanced trickery, is built right into the great natural plan.
Despite all of this, in the wild, a rabbit gets to live for a year, maybe two. Less than 10 per cent of them ever see that second summer or winter. I guess they are born for dying, a new generation every thirty-one days. But that’s not how it is for Gunther. He is fifteen years old now, at least, and I suppose this makes him a nearly unique organism in the history of the world. From here on in, every one of his experiences will be unprecedented.
Today I decided I would try to show him something new. He has always been an indoor pet – a house rabbit – but this morning I brought him outside. There was work I’d been neglecting in the yard and it had to be done. I did not think he would run away – our fences go straight to the ground – but there are gaps that are large enough and I wanted to at least give him a choice.
I put him down on the lawn and gave him a good scratch between his ears.
‘There you go,’ I said, and I spread my arms wide as if I was granting the yard to him. ‘All yours.’
He looked up at me, less enthused than I expected, and then he just lowered his head and pulled up a mouthful of fresh clover and started munching away. He casually turned and hopped a few feet over to sniff at the base of the back porch, near the spot where we keep our compost bin and the garden hose. He did not seem to be in a rush to go anywhere.
I turned away from him and walked towards the shed. I spun the combination on the padlock, opened the door and wheeled out our dusty push lawnmower. I grabbed the snips and the hedge clippers and the sturdy old garden rake with its rectangular grin of sharp tines. I took out the wheelbarrow. For half an hour I purposefully did not look back in the direction where I had left Gunther. I wanted to leave him alone and give him a chance to sort things out for himself.
There had been so many spring Saturdays like this in our past, so many days full of lists, with things that needed to be done and put in order. I raked the dead winter leaves into a pile and I uncovered the beds and I took an initial stab at trimming back the rose bush and the other perennials that Sarah had always kept up. I tried to remember everything she had told me about how to get the angle right on your snips so that everything you cut away grows back and then grows out in the right way. Fullness was what we were always aiming for. We wanted the plants in our backyard to be full, to bloom thick and heavy. I touched each fork where the branches or the stems parted and I paused and thought about what to do. Then I eenie-meenie-miney-moed my way through the decisions, before cutting one side back and letting the other side live.
I turned around just in time. There was a sound, I guess, more of a vibration in the air, but it should not have been enough. I don’t know what made me look. It was just a sigh really, a gurgling exhale, like the wheezing my own lungs made at their worst, only more shallow and quicker.
The thing I saw – the thing my eyes landed on – was a completely normal occurrence in the natural world, I guess. But at the same time, it was something shocking – something completely new and troubling – to me. A snake, much thicker and much longer than the kind of animal I believed could live beneath our porch, was spiralled around Gunther’s body. The drama was almost over and everything had already shifted to stillness. Gunther was stretched out to his full length and the sound coming from him, the vibration, was the last of his air being squeezed out of his body. The snake had wound round him four or five times and their heads, Gunther’s and the snake’s, were touching. It seemed almost like they were looking into each other’s eyes. Their tails, too, were almost even, but in between – beneath and inside the symmetry of the snake – there was this wretched contortion in Gunther’s body, a twisting that seemed to spin his neck in the opposite direction from his front paws. I felt, for sure, that all his bones had already been broken.
I have looked it up – I went immediately to the search engine when I came back to the house – and I know now that this other creature, the thing that once lived beneath our porch, was a rat snake, a non-venomous constrictor, as local to this part of the world, perhaps even more local, than my New Zealand rabbit. I have learned that rat snakes, or corn snakes, make great pets, that they are wonderful with kids, that they are the gentle hit of the reptile show that comes to visit all the schools. Childen love to feel them spiralling around their limbs, the dry, wet sensation of it. The rat snake in my backyard was not at fault, not doing anything wrong. Only taking up its assigned place and following an instinctive pattern it could not choose or change. Gunther too was where he was supposed to be, I guess. When all of this happened, I was the only thing moving out of order. But I could not stop myself from moving.
‘No,’ I said, and I took four or five purposeful strides towards them. Then I reached out and I picked up this strange and seething combination of whatever it was and I held it in my hand. I do not think I will ever touch something like this again and I do not know what I felt. It wasn’t heavy. The two of them together did not weigh as much as a bag of groceries. They were in my left hand and, with my right, I grabbed the snake just behind its head and tried to twist it away, to pry it off of Gunther, to separate them. It turned on me almost instantly, unspooling from Gunther and swivelling onto my arm. I flung both of them back on the ground. Gunther fell and did not move, but the snake immediately began to head towards the pile of leaves, sideways and forward at the same time.
But we were not done yet. I grabbed the rake and followed behind, and when my chance came, I swung the tool hard. It arched over my shoulder and cut down quickly through the air and I felt the resistance as the point of one, maybe two of the teeth penetrated the snake’s body almost in the middle. The rake descended all the way through and dug into the ground on the other side. Both ends of the snake, the top and the bottom, kept going, zigzagging furiously, but the middle was pinned down and stationary. I walked to the head, and I waited and watched the swaying. Then I timed it right and I brought my heel down as precisely as I could. I was only wearing running shoes, but I pressed hard and I felt the bones crushing, and the liquid giving way, like stepping on an orange, maybe. But after fifteen seconds, the swaying stopped, the top half of the snake first and then the bottom. I looked back to where I had been just a few seconds before and I was prepared for what I expected to see – the crumpled white pile, unbreathing – but it was not there. Instead, over to the side, maybe two feet away from where he had fallen, Gunther was up and at least partially reinflated back to his regular rounded shape. He was perfectly stationary now, still in the way that only a rabbit can be still, and he was staring at me, staring hard at this scene.
I looked at him and then down at the snake, the length of it, the stretch of its body. The things it had done and the things I had done. I did not know what any of them meant. I did not know what could or could not be justified. I only knew what had happened and that, eventually, I would have to come back here, to this spot, and clean up the mess.
I went over to Gunther and I picked him up as gently as I could, but he gave me no reaction. He was only a soft object in my hands, almost like a stuffed animal, like a kid’s toy that is supposed to stand in for a real rabbit, or for whatever a rabbit is supposed to mean. I brought him back inside, back to our house, where we are now, and I put him on the couch and knelt in front of him. I ran my fingers all along his body, like the uncaring veterinarian from years ago, but like him, I couldn’t feel anything out of place, and couldn’t tell if there was something else wrong, something broken deeper inside of him.
The phone rings and it is Sarah. She lives in a city where it is an hour earlier than it is here, and, for a second, I get confused about time zones and I imagine that none of this has happened to her yet.
‘How you doing today?’ she says.
The tone is light and easy and intimate. When conditions are right, we can fall right back into who we were. She just wants to chat about nothing, to fill in the time on an empty Saturday morning. It is quiet on both ends and I feel certain that we are both alone, at least for now.
‘Well,’ I say. It is hard to find the right words. ‘Something bad happened with Gunther just now.’
‘No,’ she says, and the turn comes right away, a panicked edge sharpening her voice. ‘What happened?’ she asks. ‘Is it bad? I was just thinking about him and wondering about the two of you. Is he going to be okay? Are you okay?’
‘It was a snake,’ I say, trying to make all of this as basic as I can. ‘Can you believe that? Like a real snake, a pretty big one, in our yard, and it almost had him, but then he got away. I’m just not sure what’s going on with him right now. Maybe he’s in shock.’
I make the clicking noise with my tongue and I say the name, the word that once seemed so strange to me. I say ‘Gunther’ and I wait for him to come but nothing happens.
The phone is pushed against my ear and Sarah’s breathing is there.
‘Tell me exactly what happened,’ she instructs. ‘And tell me what he looks like right now. Try to explain it to me. I need details. Maybe we need to call someone.’
‘He seems alert,’ I say, ‘but he’s not moving.’
I reach out and stroke the bridge of his nose with my index finger and I feel him nudging back a little bit, trying to meet my skin with his body.
I watch this happening – almost like an extreme close-up running in slow motion, a picture that I am in and observing at the same time – my finger on his nose and his nose against my finger. There is
a pause during which nothing happens. Nothing happens and nothing happens, but it goes on for too long and the gap gets too wide. I lose track.
Sarah breaks the silence.
‘David!’ she shouts. ‘David, are you there?’
My name surprises me, like an odd noise coming from another room, something crashing, and at first I don’t know how to respond, but before I can do anything, Gunther twists his head, hard and quick, pivoting both ears towards me and the telephone. He recognizes Sarah’s voice – the sounds that only she can make – a cry coming out of this plastic receiver, cutting through. He turns and his expression, the shape of his face, the tilt of his head, rearranges into something I have never seen before, flaccid and seized in all the wrong places. But his breathing is strong and steady. I feel like he needs me, like I am the only one who can pull him through.
‘I’m here,’ I say into the phone, ‘but I can’t talk right now. I have to let you go.’
I hang up and stare at Gunther and I see myself reflected again at the red centre of his eye. The surface seems cloudier than normal, and I don’t think he can process what is happening any more, this hazy mixture of light and frequency that surrounds us – the familiar and the strange. I know he still knows me – he still knows us – and I try to look past my reflection. I imagine moving directly through the membranes and lenses of his eyes, down the nerves and all the way up into his brain. I think our shared past, our lives, are still there, held in his memory. Inside the mind of the oldest rabbit that has ever lived, we are a single thought – vivid and urgent and distinct – but then it passes and the rest is everything else.
Artwork © Elliot Ross, Animal (127), 2009