by AJ Finley
We’re crawling on our bellies in the dark. The grass crackles as we inch our way like child soldiers towards the spotlights and the beep of machinery destroying this corner of the woods.
I might be the only child here; my aunt Debra is eighteen to my eleven. Everything about this moment is a rebellion. I’m out at night, collecting grass and mud on my clothing for the greater good.
I’m not good at much, sitting, listening, remembering, but sneaking in the dark feels like my element. Suddenly I’m a wild and feral thing. I belong here.
A backhoe presses its front bucket against a stubborn trunk. Together they cast a shadow as long and deep as the abyss against the construction floodlights. The metal splinters wood and the breaking is slow. A crack-crack before the tree gives and its roots tear up out of the ground. The broken tree shakes the world, and earth showers the metal cab with a sound like rain.
There is something both beautiful and horrible about this destruction. Like war. But I guess that’s what we’re waiting on. I’m not a hundred percent sure, though, because Revelations is confusing, and I’m terrible at paying attention.
In the light of day there’s nothing beautiful anymore. It looks like a wound. Torn dirt, broken branches, and tire tracks like stitches. It’s broken, ugly, and early spring cold, as my breath shows in little white puffs. A similar mist clings to the edge of the woods, and muffles the sound of hammering as the sheds for the horses go up down a-ways where the ground’s been flattened out.
There is a clear line between forest and clearing now. Jim is there, crouched at the edge. He’d come from California, just like us. He used to be in the Marines, but he’s in the Army Reserves now, and bar none the best worker we have. Even I know this. He runs the backhoe.
John is also there. I don’t much care for John.
Once, I had watched John and Jim talking, and I said a small prayer. God, if I get another dad I want someone like Jim, and not like John. Well, God has the darkest sense of humor of anyone I know, so, John’s my stepdad now. He’s also the reason I have a sister when I thought me and my brother were plenty.
“Hey, c’mere.” It’s John calling me over. I don’t want to listen, but I really do want to see what they’re looking at. So, hands in my pocket, and with feigned indifference, I wander over.
Jim’s still crouched and poking the ground with a stick. In the ground, like a giant, half buried spiders egg is a hair cocoon. At least it looks like a hair cocoon. He pulls a flap of it away, having done so previously it opens like a secret door.
Inside squirm four little Shar-Pei jellybeans. Bunnies! I’ve never even seen rabbits this small before.
“Oh.” My hand instinctively goes out to them. I want to know what they feel like. Jim slaps my hand with the stick. “Ouch.”
“Don’t touch them.”
I look at the ground surrounding them. Tire tracks had gone beside them, and the shovel of the backhoe had cut the ground above them like a knife, but those tiny little rabbits inside their hairball cocoon were alright. Like a miracle.
“How come they didn’t get squished?” I ask.
Jim shrugs. No one says or does anything, so I haven’t asked a stupid question yet.
“Where’s the mom?”
“Out there somewhere,” Jim says. “She’ll come and feed them, and they’ll be fine.”
I look at the war zone around the bunnies. A few days ago, these same two had brought back dead rabbits to skin, and me and my brother helped. I pulled the guts out and dropped them on the ground. This wasn’t my first dead animal, but my brother is a couple years younger, and I remember Jim had picked up the guts and hurled them at my brother, Javan, who screeched and whirled away.
Being a good sister, I picked them up and threw them at Jim. This started a small battle that ended in a comment along the lines of, “I don’t think we’re all right in the head,” as we kept hurling rabbit guts at each other.
“And if the mom doesn’t come back?”
“Then they die,” John said.
I have this weird feeling that if I insist she’s dead, my new stepdad’s just going to pick the jellybeans up and throw them into the woods to speed up their demise. He’d do something like that, because he’s missing the piece that says you don’t harm helpless things.
Throughout the day, chores, and building, I watch the spot where the bunnies are. So too do others, mildly curious. Among them is my Nana, my mother’s mother, and Linda, my new grandma, who is just as pleasant a grandmother as John is a stepdad.
I wait and watch the spot. No mother rabbit shows up. One rabbit is dead by lunch. Before dinner the second is gone as well. After the animals have been fed, and the sun was starting to set, most everyone was heading back to the house, but I wait by a hole in the ground. Debating.
When I’m alone, but before anyone would miss me, I put the remaining two rabbits in the corner of my shirt and walk the quarter mile back home.
Jim, who I wished was my dad, used to joke and call it the Big House. It would take me almost a decade to look back and realize he was comparing it to prison.
A few years later I would read Watership Down, by Richard Adams, and I would pull myself up out of the fantasy of rabbits and look around the house. I would liken it to a honeycomb warren, where people lived on top of one another, in almost unnatural conditions. I sympathized with Blackavar, who would rather die than return to Efrafa.
This is our temporary abode. Three trailers make up a U-shape, and a pressed plywood kingdom, surrounded by corrugated metal, sides takes up the center. I would live in this center for five years, pining for a window that I didn’t have.
Twenty-some people live here on thirty-three acres in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Some are family, some are strangers. They’re here because they think the world is ending in one way or another, so they hide here like rabbits.
I stand by the dining room area, where three long tables were arranged. Everyone else had eaten, and I held two tiny bunnies.
“Let her keep them.”
“They’ll be dead by morning.”
“Maybe she’ll learn something.”
I’m not sure of all who spoke, but I look at the faces around me as I win the easiest fight I’ve ever fought.
No one helps me, but I know what to do. Between a new sister, and a cousin, there’s plenty of baby formula. From failed kittens, a few tiny bottles remain, but the bottles were too large for the bunnies. Someone slid a tiny syringe to me and I found that between formula and syringe they ate.
Before bunnies occupied me, I used to dream about my mother leaving this place. Me and my brother would follow her. Surely there is something sacred in three.
My mother, before bunnies occupied me, dreamed such a dream.
They were shooting at us, and we were fighting back. You had to stand and look, and they blew your head off. That’s what it means. You never listen, you have to do your own thing, and you will lose your head.
It would have been bad enough if she had confided to me in secret as a child, but she spoke in front of everyone, hailing the failings of her oldest offspring. They would nod in agreement, as I felt condemned of a crime I couldn’t change. Just being me.
A couple nights later I wake and don’t find my bunnies in their plastic, fur-lined bin. It’s dark at this hour so the light from under my mother’s door gives her away.
“I was awake anyway with your sister, figured I’d feed them.”
I curl up in the corner of her bed and watch her feed my bunnies in suspicious exhaustion. Their paws raise and knead against the air while my mother’s shushing voice encourages them to eat.
This late-night moment is the most time we have spent together in over a year, and I miss her.
I’ve watched families come and go here. I’m curious when they show up, and envious when they leave.
Can we still run away as a strange family of five?
I know we can’t. There’s something broken, but this moment with the rabbits is nice.
My mom looks at me scrunched in the corner of the bed, then her gaze travels all that empty space to her husband, who sleeps oblivious.
“Go back to your room. I got the bunnies tonight.”
I don’t want to, but I do.
Within a week the bunnies start to look less like jellybeans. Their ears pick up, and they have more fur. Then when my grandmother picks up one of my babies a single black eye, all curious and alive stares at me.
“Oh!” I almost drop the one I’m feeding.
My grandmother turns the bunny around, because the other eye is still closed, and looks at the shiny black orb with a smile and a soft laugh. We trade, since my ability to pay attention to the one in my hand is gone as Little Boy looks at the world and me for the first time.
You saw me first, I think. I hold and snuggle Little Boy against my chin and cheek, while he cranes his neck trying to see his new world. I’m his mother, and I love him.
No one here knows how to sex a rabbit, and I had no intention of staring at bunny junk trying to figure it out. So Little Boy and Little Girl are arbitrary names based on personality and an early warning not to name them.
I think it is impossible to not name a thing.
As the weeks grow, so do they. Little Boy is brave for a rabbit. He darts around on the floor before racing back to come curl up by my side or hide in my shirt. Little Girl Hops out, timid, with a front-foot, back-foot rocking movement before she tries to eat the carpet.
I realize at three weeks they need more than formula, and I start to bring them clover growing outside. I watch with delight as they eat, little noses wiggling at this new thing. I also bring them water which they sample with less enthusiasm.
They look like rabbits now, even though they still fit in the palm of my hand.
People are also talking about wild rabbits needing to be let go. I ignore them. These might be cottontails, but they are my babies.
Little Girl is sick. She stops eating. She stops drinking.
I lie on my side and let her be while Little Boy runs. She pants and rests. Her black eyes don’t see much as she stares far, far away. No one can see what she’s looking at.
That was my last day with her. Inside the bin, lined with rabbit fur, Little Boy huddles far away from his sister. I never had the chance to try on my new argument to keep her. Little Girl is gone without a fight. She looks deflated as I take her outside and bury her in the dirt.
Everyone leaves me alone today. That’s sort of nice.
Little Boy gets quiet. He stops eating. He stops drinking. I carry him around because I need people to notice, because I don’t know what to do.
“Maybe he’s just sad,” my grandmother says, and I want to believe her.
I go back to my room and lay on my side. Little Boy doesn’t run as he pants and rests. Rubbing his head with my index finger he closes his eyes as I say, “You can’t leave me too.” I think I cry, because I already know. “Then I’ll really be all alone.”
A few years before this I read the Velveteen Rabbit. I remember feeling sad, yet happy the toy became a Real rabbit, even though he didn’t stay with his boy.
This felt like the horrible reverse.
Little Boy got to stay, and went from real rabbit, to toy, and then left in the garden.
My mother’s the first one I find. She’s by the dryer in trailer number three. And in that weird way of mothers, I didn’t have to say a thing.
“Aw, he didn’t make it.”
I shake my head no. I’ve been called a crybaby here a lot. I’m working on it, but this is a bit much, and she wraps her arms around me as I bawl. I can’t remember the last time she was there for me. To hold me while I cried.
“Hon’, sometimes wild rabbits just die in captivity.”
“I’m in captivity, why ain’t I dead?”
“You’re not a rabbit.”
There’s no denying captivity, we all feel it. Suddenly, the rabbits feel like the lucky ones.
Every so often we drive for an hour or two to go to a mall. It takes two vehicles, and not all of us go.
My favorite shop here is the pet shop. Most of the time I’m all about the birds. The finch with the super long tail or the Macaws are a favorite.
This time it’s a glass aquarium full of dwarf rabbits of all sorts of colors, black, white, tan, or a mix of the three, but not one is the color of cottontails.
My mother walks over.
“Remember the bunnies?” I ask, staring at the small white dwarf rabbit with the black rings around his eyes. His fur is sleek and shiny, nose twitching, and those black eyes stare at me.
For a moment, something rouses in my mother. The next thing I know she’s talking to one of the salespeople about the cages and the rabbit there. I think this is going to happen. Apparently, so too does Linda and my grandmother as they corner mom and shoo the associate away.
I already know.
My mom slinks back, defeated.
“It wouldn’t be the same,” I admit. This rabbit wouldn’t die, no matter how small the cage.
The light here is too bright. The bunny too clean. Those black eyes don’t hold anything in them. There’s nothing here that’s real. No dirt. Nothing wild.
About AJ Finley
AJ Finley does not have an MFA in creative anything and instead is a communications major learning about the magical world of public relations while writing in her spare time. Her tastes lean more to the fantastic more often than not. She is the author of several short stories that can be found in the likes of Stupefying Stories and Flash Pan, but has spent most of her time focusing on graduating and finishing that novel…