Friday, December 31, 2021

The 2021 Christmas Octave: LOGAN NAYLOR, My Stolen Property


We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander



After “My Private Property” by Mary Ruefle


The lucky rabbit’s foot was the first thing I stole. It’s severed you know, like actually cut from the body of a dead rabbit. I know you know this, and that I should too, but it only really occurred to me now, occurred to me in the way one might start to think harder about process. Something you might realize when confronted with the image of a shrunken head being filled with hot sand, and simmered down to the size of an orange. A real, human head, made empty rubber glove, with only the hair kept exactly the same. You cannot shrink hair, cannot empty its shaft, its natural shape, but you can preserve it. And what I mean about my epiphany concerning dismemberment is that it's obvious. What I mean is there’s a real morbidity to the object that did not scare me when I was nine. What I mean, I guess, what I must mean, is that it is sad, is it not, that no one’s thinking about rabbits' feet. I was once, every day for years. It started on one of my nine-year-old-days, in a gift shop. I dug my fist into a wooden bucket full of severed rabbit limbs, and how morbid really, I know, you know, but I was intoxicated with the thought of slipping the one that felt the most alive into my pocket. That felt important. That toe gnarls were to be expected, something crooked that wasn’t there in life, but there remained a desire to find one with even toes, cured rigor mortis that felt non arthritic. I was on a fifth-grade field trip, a war reenactment. I didn’t feel too bad or afraid of death. War and death felt far in our imitation. I was hung up on a boy, who would later be a girl, once I was a boy, but right then we were all mixed up, and in line, waiting to be handed a long stick to be slung over our shoulders like a gun. Let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. Let me never know the jagged bone that lay beneath a keychain cap. My boyfriend and I were stuck five people apart right then, so we pulled up the grass and sank into our heads. The five people between us passed me a moonstone: From boy, with love. A however -many-weeks-of-nine-year-old-dating sort of gift, a stone tumbled smooth and oval, a divot for my thumb. I clutched it in my hand while we charged the other kids with stick-guns and hid behind rocks. I held my thumb to that shallow, worry stone place. The part that made room for me, was cold and ungiving once but warmed under my skin, seemed to have pressed away and held hands with me. Afterwards, we got rations. Cornbread and apples and beef jerky. The food tasted something like the sweat against the stone in my hand. And I was still holding it in the gift shop, of course. Palm sweating on the moon rock was vital to stealing the rabbit foot. It gave me purpose and confidence. I carried both the stone and the foot with me for a long time after. And still, after all of its time in the shoe box, it hadn’t sunk in until now that a lucky rabbit’s foot was in fact severed. I was lured to the small thing that could shapeshift and that was all. I stole Littlest Pet Shop characters from my cousin's house. There was an elaborate scheme involving a small Yoda figurine. I harbored glass elephants from my grandmother. Stole small, clay bumblebees once, but it began to shift beyond plastic. Maybe it started with the seed pods of our mulberry tree. They were soft and green. They had guts. I’d cup them in my hands, tell anyone that would listen that I’d caught a caterpillar. I’d lie. I guess you could put it that way if you want. Lying. You could also say these things required me to lie. That I was fixated on things that asked me to fight for the way they might live on. They were so real already that immediately they became a portal to a world of fabricated, shallow breathing, even if I felt like I could force that feeling into anything at all. The rabbit’s foot was an especially private instance. Something I allowed myself to take out of my shoe box, and fawn over in secret. It was too alive to fool with. It was a token I needed to clutch close to me as I moved through the world, searching for new trinkets to breathe life into, all while parting the long tufts of fur to find the real nails still beneath. I would sometimes press it to my cheek and lie there, dreaming of the rabbit. Thinking about its origin in a guarded way that hid parts of itself from me. Like, how do you make a rabbit’s foot anyway? There are procedural necessities to make it the lucky kind. The left, hind foot. Killed in a cemetery, during an intentional day. A friday. A rainstorm. A holiday. At midnight. This is what makes it lucky. It seems self explanatory that the foot just comes off. Garden shears should do the trick. Nothing more intensive. Just the way fingers can be snapped with teeth, the force it takes to bite a baby carrot and nothing more. If anything, it’s the curing process that’s complicated. Soaking it in a jar of isopropyl alcohol. Rinse and repeat. Add borax. Shampooing it. Drying it in the sun. Clipping the jagged end into a keychain, hiding fragments of bones and blood stain. Making death smooth and tidy. And still: mostly simple. I was close to this transition once, from life to death. I was eleven, and my infatuation with rabbits growing. I caught a baby rabbit, mid air in the backyard. It was young and slow and away from the nest too soon. Something that needed its mother and had a different kind of trust, timid but still growing into fear. I held it in my lap on our couch, feeling its heart beat beneath my palms, until it spasmed a few times, and I said, calm down, calm down, I got you. All at once it was too still, as if I had commanded it. I wanted to take it back as soon as I’d spoken. It felt wrong that I could touch the fur without resistance. It wouldn’t quiver, couldn’t jump like horse skin. I couldn’t feel its heart but knew it was inside. I was left with shame, staring into glassy eyes that watched me feel for its beating heart. It took only seconds for small bugs to leave its skin. They all came up at once, fleas or mites, searching for new warmth, understanding the end, finding the next planet to inhabit. Sweaty fear ate at my own skin. I knew what the bugs knew. We knew it together and started a desperate search to exit and continue. I took it to the yard still trying to confuse lifelessness with sleep. Coyotes carried it away within the hour, tossing it back into their jaws, feeding it to their own pups, holding bugs close inside their coats, bugs that still fed on their lasting warmth. I’m thinking about whether fur is really the same the whole time. If the fur, when it cools, loses something more than just bugs. I’m looking for something to remain. Fur as memory. Make believe. I’m waiting for anything to breathe. Lying about what can and can’t. Cupping small, fur pelts in my hands and trying to make wonder appear. Holding a stolen rabbit’s foot tight in my fist and getting too attached to an afterlife that looks like that. A segment kept perfect. Even toes, even toes. Something miniaturized and kept going. A shrunken head given to a widow, and still, someday, eaten by a mouse like jerky. Passive and still, chewable, yet a kind of life carrying on. I want to preserve the rabbit I scared to death, but I am also glad that the coyotes left me with nothing. I want to preserve the first pet rabbit I lost, whose body I watched drop from the jaws of the neighbor's dog, but I am squeamish and unable. I’m thinking about what can’t be kept if it isn’t easy. How I didn’t keep his foot when he died, but the ritual was there. The dog made a graveyard of our home. It was on a cold Friday, late into the night. The dog ran up to me, licked ketchup from my laces and left my rabbit dying in the grass, and I could have done it. But I never would have been able to soak the life away in a jar, or use the garden shears, or patch it up with a keychain bandaid. A month later, a raccoon dug up his body. He did a half-assed job moving the headstone, making the flies swarm from their holes under the plywood. He left without finishing the grave robbing. Just disturbed everything enough to force me to confront it. I had to move him. He was still in my T-shirt where I had left him. He smelled. I don’t know if I expected clean bones or what. I thought even then that I wanted a memento. His teeth. His skull. But his body was heavier than I expected it to be. I knew under the cotton I had wrapped him in there would be maggots and leftovers. That no matter how much I wanted a piece to hold, I couldn’t stomach the truth of death. That I had once held his body until it went cold, and then stiff, and only then did I forget to feel kind through my crying. I was disquieted by the stiffness that took over. I wanted to let go. Somehow a dismembered fragment felt like a way to surpass this fear, as if I could distill softness by keeping a paw to hold, as if that would work to soothe the loss better than the awkward stiffness of the thing I could not keep. The morning after he was killed, I traced the yard for clues of his path. How many laps had he run before the dog caught him? All I found to calculate it were a few wisps of fur, looped around blades of grass. I picked them up and stuffed them into a mason jar where they have stayed since. But I could never reach into the shirt and look for something more. Something I would have to dissect and make clean. When the raccoon forced me to resurface the body, I patched it up with a deeper grave. I put the headstone back. I left that part of my brain there in the yard. Forgetting still, choosing to forget, that memento involves killing and skinning. I like to be left with neatness. I want to preserve without process. I want to never let them mold or rot. I would not let the mice near them, their fate would be to remain exactly as they were in life, exactly as they are, albeit dismembered and portable, and from time to time I would take them out and look at them and be startled, and I think of the widow who fainted at the sight of her husband’s head, and I think if I could hold the soft paws of my beloved in my hand I would indeed feel faint, but I think also I would get used to it, I would grow calm and be moved in the tenderest of ways, at just the sight of them there in my hand. I’d take that feeling as far as I go. Give me rabbit’s feet to hold. Promise me there is nothing beneath the keychain cap. Tell me there are some things that always live like this. Just like this. 


Logan Naylor writes and teaches at the University of Iowa. They live in Iowa City with their partner, two cats, one gecko, three rats, and twenty-nine houseplants. They are, unfortunately, running out of space for new pets.

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