Monday, January 31, 2011

Rabbit Punch

This piece is my half of a collaboration that appears in the first issue of Cottonmouth.

She snaps pole beans in the deep basin of the kitchen sink. She looks down at her hands and watches the gnarled fingers move among the beans. Veins lattice the back of her hands, her pinky on the left is far too small.
“Oh, that’s just my pinky nub,” she’d tell every grandkid the first time she noticed them staring. “I was helping my sister shuck corn. You even know what a corn shucker is,” she’d ask.
“No ma’am.”
“Well, it’s dangerous. I let my hand slip in there and my sister was turning the wheel, and my finger caught in the gears and the machine chewed it right down.”

She is wearing a brown dress that makes her white hair look yellow in the kitchen’s light. She looks down into the sink at the colander of pole beans and tries to remember if she’s snapping them or just remembering one of the times before. Bowls, basins, beans, blur in a memory whose twists and turns are like the tunnels of a rabbit’s warren.
“It all starts to run together after awhile. There’s just too much. Like the ocean churning up the small shells as the waves crash on the shore – everything dances together, swapping partners too fast to keep up,” she mutters to herself. “Do-see-do.”
Behind her at the long wooden kitchen table, the women pay April no attention. She is their Mother April, Great Grammaw, Grandma, Great Auntie, Momma and Aunt April – but never Mawmaw or Nana. She saw to that. The women work on an army of side dishes: Baked Beans, Collard Greens, Mashed Potatoes, Fruit Salad, Potato Salad, Pasta Salad, Jello Salads, Garlic Rolls, Cheddar Rolls, Butter Rolls, Corn on the Cob as sweet as Gold, Squash Casserole, Fried Okra, Chicken Pastry, Cornbread Stuffing, Cornbread, Creamed Corn– The older instruct the younger, initiating them into the alchemy of nurturing.
They pay April no attention and let her prattle.
“I remember one bean crop, the hugest I’ve ever seen and the worm got to it and ate it all. Oh, Lord, Mother was so glad she didn’t have to can a single bean that year. Hell, I was glad too. Canning’s awful hot work in the summer.”
April stops snapping beans and rubs her hands. Her joints are knobbled, fingers warped with years of work. No one would call them beautiful. Her wedding ring sits next to the sink basin, picking up the light from a square of sun coming through the white kitchen curtains. The small diamond sends light laving out across the counter. It catches April’s eye.
“Charles,” she murmurs.
He had courted her for three years before proposing. She had loved his quick mind and quiet way.
“His folks owned all this land,” she began. “Pine all over these hills. A forest full of deer and birds and raccoons and squirrels and rabbits under the ground. I’ve not had rabbit in some time. I’ve half a mind to take off into those woods and come back with a brace of them,” she said, gesturing towards the hem of trees on the edge of the field. Can’t have that farm-raised rabbit – the meat’s got no taste. Might as well eat chicken,” she laughs to herself.
He had cleared the land that belonged to him when he asked her to marry him. Sold all the timber and bought her the tiny diamond. Axes rang for weeks, a dull ache spreading across the land. He had built the farmhouse in a meadow, the only clear plot that had been on his land. They chased out scores of rabbits the first few years.
“See, what you do is,” April continues.
No one notices the shift in topic.
“You, you, you gotta take a bucket and you put sunflower seeds on the bottom and fill it halfway with water. Now you can do this with a big washtub, which is what I’d do. Now you got your water and your seeds sunk at the bottom and you put a ramp going up to the bucket. And the rabbits, and the chipmunks, and the what-have-yous will come up to the edge and jump in the water trying to get the seeds and drown.” She laughs.
“What happens to the rabbits, grammaw,” a small voice asks from the doorway.
“You eat em!”
A dim recognition flashes on the small face and it turns and darts down the hall.
“They gotta learn where it comes from sooner or later,” she says.

Charles had left her some years back. A life of work and a long sleep. She had found him in the field next to the house one afternoon. He hadn’t come in for lunch when she called so she went looking for him and found him in the cut grass that was still waiting to be baled for winter hay. “His eyes were just filled with sky,” she’d always say. She had closed them so he could keep all the sky in. She had wrapped him in a bed sheet and drug him to the little cemetery on the edge of the woods. “He gave me the forest,” she’d always say, turning her ring on her finger, wagging her fingers so the diamond would snatch the light, “so I gave him to the forest. Just seemed right.”
She walks into the kitchen. The light from the rising sun crashes against the windows over the sink and drains into the room, spreading across the aged orange linoleum. It splashes across her slippers and the hem of her nightgown. Her shoulders are hunched, her pale green robe spills down the slope of her shoulders, tiny waves rippling down her arms, frothing at her wrists. The sun warms her legs. Her legs have not been warm since the warren. Her legs have not been strong since the warren. She bends her knees and does not ache for the first time in mornings. She pulls her arms in to her side and crouches down. She can see the sun just now rising over the bottom of the windowsill. It burns against the curtains. White with little red strawberries. She hums in tune with the refrigerator. She feels the sound in her chest, thrumming out along her arms. She pulls herself in tighter. She sniffs the air, feeling the warmth in the scent. She unfolds and walks over to the door in a crouch. The waves on her nightgown rise and sink and rise and sink again. She is lost at sea as she moves down the stairs. The wood creaks – her joints do not. She moves across the yard and into the waist-high grass that the pastures have grown over with. It whispers against her nightgown. She does not remember the way back to the warren. She does not remember the lay of this land. She moves through the grass slowly. The grass whispers against her gown. “April, we remember you. This is where you are to be found. Follow our sound,” it says to her and she extends her arms and jumps. Landing one-two-right-hand-left-hand and the legs gallop up beside and she jumps again. The grass is speaking all around her, and she must move to hear what it is saying. She picks up speed, her jumps growing to hops and then leaps. Her feet and hands fall like fingers on a piano, a delicate touch under which a bird might rest. Her nightgown billows out behind her. The sea is raging. It lashes at the grass. It snaps. The backs of her hands are covered in fine brown down fur. It rounds along the fingers and spreads up under the sleeves of her robe. She sniffs the air. Her shoulders slump. Her leaps grow longer, faster. Her fingers fold one into the next as her feet lengthen out. She feels them stretch, the ache in her old frame melting away as her bones rearrange. She feels her white hair knit together to cover her ears. She can hear. She can hear. She can hear the sound of the blue jay’s heart beating as he flies overhead. She spots a falcon overhead and zigzags across the remaining field and into the forest.
She stops, resting on her hind legs. She sits up, listening, twitching her ears to pick up every sound in the forest. She cannot find her family, cannot hear them.
They find her later that afternoon, curled at the base of a pine trunk. A basket full of dead rabbits rests at her feet. They had woke that morning and found her missing – made the usual calls to neighbors and then the police. They fanned out, passing over the fields in formation, combing the grass for their April.
She had been sleeping when they came upon her. She startled when they woke her, eyes flashing open with a catch of breath, and then softening.
“It is that which is forgotten that is important,” she chattered, “the present, though relevant, is worthless. Oh I could tell you a thing or two about dawn, there’s something I know about. I remember when I first came to the warren. The others were suspicious. Would sniff-sniff-sniff with distaste. They were rigid and awkward around me. So stiff. Little muscles stretched taut, ready for action. Fight or flight.”


She spends the night before Thanksgiving in the kitchen. It is dim. She cooks by the light of a lamp and the light over the stove. She leaves a wake in the light as she moves, a ripple refracts behind her. She moves like a lamp swung by a hunter in a field, walking back and forth, the swath of light cutting across the dark and herding rabbits toward a longnet the hunter has staked in the ground.

Her memories scatter before her. She catches the hind legs and tails darting out of the lamp light. She skins the rabbits, severing the front legs across the wrists, like her mother had shown her. She works the skin from an incision across the hind legs. It pulls like the husk of an ear of corn. The heads of corn nod in a hot wind that rolls through the stalks and they crab-claw rattle. April walks along, picking ears, peeling them clean, the husk slipping with resistance. April cleans the silk from between the kernels. Her fingers snake around each ear as they work. She cuts the head of the corn off, small kernels, no use. April places the cleaned corn in a basket. April fills the basket. April turns on the faucet and dumps the basket of carcasses into the deep basin of the sink. She washes the rabbits in hot water. Then, the soft shick of her knife slitting down the front, the meat curling away at the edges. The last life leaves the rabbits in a sluice. April watches it melt in the soft light of the kitchen. She has drained life in this sink countless times. She cleans the brace of rabbits, saving the hearts and livers. Eleven hearts. Eleven livers. April rolls out wax paper on the wooden kitchen table. Eleven rabbits set out on their backs. She takes a cleaver. She cleaves the two hindquarters (back legs and thighs). She removes the two forequarters (front legs and ribs). What remains is the back strap – the loin meat that runs along the backbone, below the ribs, stomach and above the hind legs. April’s memory watches from the doorway. She mutters to herself as she tries to count the number of times she’s dressed game in this light. Her memory chatters in the doorway, sentences from the past floating up through the muck to legibility.

April pulls her nightgown around her as she glances through her note cards of recipes. She pulls trays from under the stove and sets the rabbits in them whole. It takes three trays. She covers them with bacon, places them in an oven at 350 degrees. She slices onions on the cutting board and crushes twelve whole heads of garlic. She throws them in cast iron pans and sweats them over low heat. April has a pan on each of the stove’s four burners. She leans against the oven’s front as she stirs the onions. Her body moves towards the warmth. The onions skitter in their pans, bleeding off translucent white in the heat of the skillets. She adds sherry when the onions are pale and limp. The sherry froths in the pans and settles to a simmer. She pours a coffee cup half full with whiskey from the freezer. Frost sprouts around her hand on the bottle. She steals a cigarette from a pack someone has left on the kitchen counter. She walks out the back door and eases down to sit on the porch steps. She lights the cigarette. She sips her whiskey. From inside the house, the smell of meat, fat, and bacon mix. She sips her whiskey. She gets up to check on the rabbit and pulls them out of the oven. She tears as much meat as she can and adds it to the cast iron pans. She adds the bacon, and parsley, thyme, chives – greens that rabbits crave. April pours cream into the pans and covers them. She rolls out pastry dough a quarter inch thick and brushes it with egg wash and places the crust over the rabbit mixture in the pans. She lines the shelves of her refrigerator with the rabbit pies. She always chills them before she bakes them. Her mother had taught her the same, claiming that chilling the food allows the flavor to settle. April still doesn’t understand what that means, but she chills her food before she bakes it. She returns to the stoop. She sets her mug down and starts to sit.
“Goddamit, forgot my cigarette” she says halfway down, and uses the railing to pull herself back up. She walks inside and takes the whiskey from the freezer, steals another cigarette from the pack on the counter and returns to her seat. She lights the cigarette and places it next to the butt of the other. She sips her whiskey and watches the smoke stitch out across the pale green of her nightgown. She waits for morning and thinks of trees in a storm, limbs pushed to one side, leaves flipped and quivering on the ends of their branches. Leaf bellies.
The screen door claps behind April as she hurries down the back steps. She stops at the bottom and crouches, holding her head in her hands. The light from the sun rushes at her from across the fields. It pushes at her eyes, a dull ache spreading back from her sockets. She vomits. Day-old cornbread and milk. Breakfast. The light braids between the branches of the trees and presses against her eyes. Cords of light. She sees the light refract in a haze around her. It pours down from the sky.

She remembers the rains that fell that one spring. The litters had just been born. She had eight kits that year, but the rain came early. It soaked through the ground for days, dripping in the tunnels and pooling. Her kits were caked with mud.
The farmer, deciding to take advantage of the deluge drug hoses out across his field, placing the nozzles in the ends of the rabbit holes. They curled like snakes in the grass, canvas slithering over the hill to the nearby creek where the farmer hooked the hoses to the irrigation pump. April’s ears twitched as the sound of the generator roaring to life travelled through the ground. She heard the rush of air the water pushed out the hoses, rising in pitch as it neared the warren. The rush out the nozzle, silver snakes slithering down the tunnels. A snap of teeth in the froth licking at the walls. She positioned herself in the entrance to her den, baring her teeth, daring the threat against her young.

She kneels at the base of one of her pecan trees. “Oh, you’d think we’d make poor fighters. You’d be surprised. Legs for kicking, claws, claws, claws, that tear,” she mutters past her fingers into the dirt. She rolls over on her back. Her white sundress is stained with dirt, stuck with leaves. She clenches the fabric at her sides and stares up. Her head feels heavy. She cannot remember where she is.

April snapped at the water as the level in the tunnel rose to her den. It did not relent. Behind her, the kits mewed for milk, calling out for their mother. She shook, brown fur quivering in the reflected silver light of the water. She backed into the den and the kits took to suck. The kits were so absorbed in their meal they did not notice the snakes slide into the den and curl around their naked pink bodies. April’s whiskers dipped under the surface and she twitched them up. She felt her young pawing at her stomach, but still they sucked, seeming to draw oxygen from her milk. And then one by one she felt them fade. Not quitting all at once, but dimming. Glowing softer and softer, like fireflies in a clump of grass. Then nothing. She was alone and let the serpent take her too. Her tremors quieted in its coils

April stares up through the branches of her pecan tree. “It’s almost time for your harvest,” she says. They sway in the pale October wind. Her vision blurs slightly and the branches seem to double in number. New limbs sprouting from the trunk and filling out with leaves.
“Good crop this year,” she says, sitting up to one side. Her body hesitates as she pushes up from hands and knees, half crouched she sways and falls. The dirt settles around her where she fell as her brain swells past its banks. Her blood rushes and pulls at her, dragging her downhill towards the lake at the far edge of the woods. She will escape from the press of the trunks there, the bark crowding in as she flies past. The grooved surface of the water fills her vision, muddy green stretching out and held back only by the line of pines far off and the blue of the sky. The forest presses in tightly, pushing the lake into a narrow run of olive, the sky shining off into the distance.

Her brain swells again and the sky pours down, filling her eyes.
The bones of the house settle. Every room is full, children dream, sleeping on the floors next to their parent’s borrowed beds. The house holds them against the cold of November. He has been alone for over a month. She no longer sweeps the halls all through the night. The television sits silent, no silver static or chatter of salespeople washing over the wooden walls of the living room. They have come for Thanksgiving and to sit beside her grave out by the forest. They buried her next to him, her Charles.


One of the Aunts had found her out in the yard later that October day. She had walked in the front door calling out to her. Glancing out the kitchen window, she called to her kids, “Y’all go out there and start picking up those pecans while I find grandma.”
Later they filled bag after bag with shelled pecans and filled April’s freezer and the deep freeze chest out in the carport.

“It’s as if all the branches let go at once,” the Aunt told her husband as she pulled down the sheets later that night. The lawn was a carpet of pecans and the chickens and Guinea fowl were walking on the nuts, picking between them at the grass beneath. They looked nervous. Do you think they know she’s gone?”
“They probably didn’t like walking on the nuts,” he says, climbing into bed next to her.

She dreams that night of an oven full of burning pecan pies. Smoke creeps out the white mouth of the oven and pools on the kitchen ceiling. In the doorway, April yells at her. She wakes up and slips out of bed. Padding to the kitchen, she opens the freezer. Brown paper bags are stacked, full of pecans. She pulls them out and pulls out her pie pans. She bakes pecan pies til the morning, setting the egg timer lest they burn.