Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Kendra Mullison on Brenda Peterson's "Growing Up Game" ... and Rabbits.

Dear T,
    In light of your latest letter, I thought it likely that we might have misunderstood each other.  Not just about the prickly pear jelly I sent you for Christmas, which I fully intended for you to serve with scones and hot tea, but about a certain creature which is--quite literally--much closer to your heart.  You deserve an explanation, and I won’t hold back--
    Here follows my entire history with rabbits.  
    When I was twenty-two, I decided to plant a kitchen garden.  You remember; you put in a raised bed around the same time, and blamed the wretched crop on Alabama’s unpredictable weather.  Several states away, I dug up a patch of front yard, right up against the house, about six feet by four.  A small garden, but an ambitious enterprise by my own less-than-modest expectations.  I put in asparagus, bok choi, carrots, ten or twelve different herbs, and mustard.  I prayed over that garden more often than I prayed for good health, weeded its neat rows daily, and tracked in mud every time the weather turned stormy.  Despite flooding, despite hail, and despite my scorched-earth methods of aphid control--in short, despite everything--the garden greened.  The basil shot up three feet when I wasn't looking, and the mustard, six.
    Then came the rabbits, and overnight my garden reverted to its original mud-patch state.  Only the mustard was spared, probably because it was six feet off the ground and pungent.  Where I grew up, sort of--or rather where I spent a few years while growing, in Australia--rabbits are an introduced species.  As with many other plant and animal species in that great southern land--dingoes, cane toads, kudzu, cats--the rabbit has made itself right at home.  Rabbiting has entered the Australian lexicon, and none of its many meanings carry positive connotations: to talk at length about nothing of importance, to run for cover out of cowardice, to be rather too quick about the sex act.  
    Tellingly, rabbit has become a dirty word because the animal has become a symbol of fertility and superfluity, even as American markets sell the Easter Bunny as a symbol of purity, innocence, and profit.  Australians remain unimpressed; instead of white rabbits, stores carry chocolate bilbies during Holy Week.  Given the animal’s history in Australia, I can see why.  Who would support the presence of a feral European mammal when one can buy an edible effigy to an endangered native marsupial instead?  A biologist could tell you in thirty words or fewer just how damaging introduced species have been to Australia’s fragile landscape.
    I cannot help but admire the beautiful little walking stomachs that decimated my carrots and herbs but left my mustard alone.  The rabbit is nature at its most flexible, its most accommodating.  If there is enough greenery to be had, or even some less-palatable tree bark, a single female can produce more than eight hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in a single season.  In Australia, where the winters are milder, they can breed year round.  Thomas Austin released twenty-four rabbits onto his Winchelsea estate in 1859; less than a decade later, a single shooting season might take in over two million rabbits without a noticeable effect on the population.  The rabbit colonization of Australia was, according to some accounts, the fastest spread of any mammalian species ever recorded.  The rabbit colonization of my garden took less than a week, from my first rabbit sighting in the neighborhood to the last asparagus shoot.  By the time the month was out, my housemates and I had catalogued at least two families with four or five kits each, one of which took up residence in our dryer vent when the outdoor filter broke off.  
    More disturbingly, there were the resident escapees.  One grey, one pitch black and evil.  The wild cottontails were buff-colored and compact bundles of fur, with kits only about six inches long, but Patch and Demon cleared the grass at around two feet high, and they haunted houses.  There's nothing quite like stepping out of the house into the white fog of an Ozark morning to find myself confronted by a monstrous black rabbit on the doorstep, or to turn the corner at dusk and find a behemoth benignly devouring my bok choi.  Even you, dear sister, were never as terrifying to me as these rabbits, at six in the morning.
    I might perhaps have treated our resident rabbit population with the same courtesy as I did the aphids, had not one of my housemates struck down my proposal to snare a brace or two for dinner one night.  Banned from shedding the blood of innocent kits, I purchased a PETA-approved humane trap, designed for relocation.  I tried all of the usual tricks--carrots, spinach, peanut butter--but found my trap empty every morning with the food gone.  Some of the kits took to tormenting me by playing with the trap.  I'd find them perched on top, or nosing around the exterior, with all the snide slyness of my own childhood years.  And of course, they were too fast to catch.
    Unable to catch or kill the rabbits, I took to whining about them.  "Baby Bunnies" became code in my house for anything that drove me to distraction.  Perhaps you were too caught up in excitement at getting pregnant to pick up on the new addition to my expletive dictionary.  My housemates and I removed the trap from the garden and placed it just outside the dining room window, so that we could watch for rabbits as we ate and studied at the table.  The rabbits followed the trap around the yard, or seemed to, but never allowed themselves to be caught.
    One day, while I was at work, you texted me to request I sketch you a rabbit.  At the time, I was in the habit of drawing on post-it notes while my accounting reports compiled and scanning them onto my blog.  The simplicity of the medium appealed to me, and the limitations.  Why not add a rabbit to the collection?  Out came the pen and the post-it note, and up went the image onto my blog.
    The next day, you sent me a photograph--that was it, just a photograph--of your collarbone.  And there he was, most hateful of creatures, the rabbit, inked into your skin forever.   You had snatched my sketch out of the ether and tethered it to your body.  Later, you told me that you had miscarried, and that you had called your child-to-be Baby Bunny.  And just like that, I knew the battle was over, and I had lost.  It didn't matter, really, that you’d gotten another tattoo, or even that the newest crop of grey hairs on our mother's head had been cultivated by my own pen.  I could not go on complaining about demon rabbits of the night, or joking about the various ways to dress a rabbit carcass--because the rabbit was no longer just a rabbit, but something else entirely.  Someone else.  One body for another body, one baby for another, memorialized and mapped in your skin.  
    So I began to watch the kits, at all hours and seasons, hanging around my humane trap like men around a barbecue grill.  I might as well have supplied the beer, just to complete the picture.  Just to perfect the torture instrument.  I still tried to keep them away from the basil and the cabbages, with wire and mesh and a dubious purchase from the hardware store that advertised itself as real coyote urine, but I no longer threw open the windows and hissed at them, or chased them with the lawn mower.  One afternoon, while plotting out the best way to poison gophers in the back yard, I found a dead kit by the dryer vent.  Six inches of freshly dead, mottled brown fur, and a spot of blood on the shoulder.  One leg was thrown wide, the soft underbelly exposed.  I went inside for a plastic bag, a shroud.  
    There’s a passage in Brenda Peterson’s “Growing Up Game,” a graceful grappling with a family tradition of hunting that first appeared in Greywolf Annual Three, that has stuck with me for years:

My father and Buddy Earl shot a big doe and she lay with me in the back of the tarp-draped station wagon all the way home.  It was not the smell I minded, it was the glazed great, dark eyes and the way that head flopped around crazily on what I knew was once a graceful neck.  I found myself petting this doe, murmuring all those graces we’d been taught long ago as children.  Thank you for the sacrifice, thank you for letting us be like you so we can grow up strong as game.  But there was an uneasiness in me that night as I bounced along in the back of the car with the deer.
A rabbit is not a deer; that much is self-evident.  Their masses are different, and they occupy different spaces in both the world and Western thought.  Likewise, Peterson’s qualms and mine are rather different: she falls into “horror and awe and kinship” at the act of predation; I do so as an undertaker for a corpse I cannot claim.  But the uneasiness--that is the same, even if I didn’t have to while away the hours in the back of a station wagon with the dear departed.  “Growing Up Game” has become an analogue for my own loss.  You lost a baby, the greater bereavement, and I lost my right to complain.
    The kit’s broken body went out with the trash on a Tuesday, and that's the morning I came to know rabbits as something more than abstract clusters of fur and bone, or reproductive machines and statistically devastating successes.  The dead baby bunny wasn’t exactly a stand-in for Baby Bunny, if you catch my drift, but it was more than a two-inch sketch on a post-it note, or a footnote in a natural history journal.
    I'm years gone from being twenty-two now, but you still have that tattoo, and I still have the original post-it note.  I kept Baby Bunny around, once I knew what he meant to you, and he's tucked inside the cover of my sketch book.  I will probably always hate rabbits, but I cannot help but love them, too--despite all those pernicious bodily perfections that allow them to wreak such havoc in places like Winchelsea and my kitchen garden.  It's a creature that kicked me, however briefly and however unconsciously, out of my self-absorption.  As with Peterson and her doe, the dead kit and your tattoo gave me “full knowledge of what I do, what I become” in the presence of death.  The rabbit is a creature that gets under my skin, and into yours.
    Much love, and some bitterness,
    - KMM


Kendra Mullison is a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she spends most of her time surprising no one.

1 comment:

  1. Funny, poignant, beautiful, and moving...thanks for sharing.