Guilt and confusion tend to breed nightmares, and I started having bad dreams. I would wake up in the middle of the night unsure of when I last had been to the hutch. My eyes would open into blackness, my heart contacting and expanding with vague anxiety. It was a kind of terror that would carry into my adult life — the realization that something I’d neglected was damaged, but alive and angry. I was to blame, and that I had no idea what to do next.
One morning I decided to be brave. I crossed the screened porch, walked down the stairs onto the weedy brick patio that led to our yard. Clutching fresh rabbit food pellets and a bottle of water in my little hands, I was ready to start over. I wanted Peter and Lee to know that I did love them, that I cared for them, that I could do better and that this would be the morning of a fresh start. I wanted my fear to go away, and I hoped they would give me another chance.
I crossed the wet grass and looked closely at the hutch. Something tiny was hanging from the mesh squares on the hutch floor. Drawing closer, I saw the same random shapes reaching through the wire squares. The shapes moved. Coming around the wooden end of the hutch, I saw that the tiny things were feet. The feet were attached to legs no bigger than matchsticks. Translucent, soft claws grabbed weakly at the air in the empty space under the hutch. The legs belonged to naked babies, their blood vessels visible through skin thinner than tracing paper. Some of those vessels were leaking blood from scrapes against wire. The babies’ eyes were blue currant berries, sealed and sightless. Their ears were like tiny human fingernails, pale crescents flattened against skulls no bigger than a ping pong ball. I didn’t count them. I didn’t know how to count them, as my brain saw dozens of random creatures and then suddenly would be unable to look away from just one. It was then that I remembered Peter and Lee.
Lee was cornered and distressed; Peter stared right at me. Some of the blood in the hutch was from his bites on the newborn rabbits. The family looked stranded. The struggling, nearly fetal rabbits knocked me out of my shock and into a flying, shouting run back into the house. “Mom, mom! There are babies! They are in trouble! Help!”
My mother had always been a person of action and I had seen her solve a lot of problems before. But even mom was stunned and still upon seeing the rabbits inside their hostile, locked world. There was confusion in the air. Peter and Lee were brother and sister. They were barely adults themselves. How could they possibly have created offspring? This was not supposed to happen. Nothing about the bloody, sad, angry scene before us made any sense. It didn’t follow the rules we had all believed were in place for us and for them. Siblings didn’t mate. Children didn’t have children. Parents don’t attack their own. Good intentions carried the day, and strong mothers could always fix things.
I think there was a rapid appearance of three cardboard boxes. Peter went into one alone, as did Lee. The babies were gently gathered in gloved hands and placed in a box of their own on an old, soft towel. My mother made a phone call to a friend with expertise in wildlife, and the news was not good. Peter and Lee were adult rabbits now, and they could never live together again. His distress at being enclosed with so many babies and Lee had led to aggression against them. Though I don’t know what happened to the tiny rabbits for a fact, I choose to believe they died on that towel. They died in a soft place, with the last touch being a loving one. They did not die caught on a wire floor.
When I think about it now I realize that there was no defined intent or purpose in bringing these creatures into our lives. We bumbled our way through checklist of steps and provisions, but that is not an ideal way to care for life. In the end we did the only ethical thing we could think of, and gave both rabbits to a neighborhood children’s museum that housed a spider monkey, a sloth, and a python. Things seemed resolved.
The first week or so with the rabbits gone was a welcome relief. I no longer had to worry about them out in the hutch on my watch, but I continued to wake up in a panic wondering how they were. I had to hope they were better off where they were than they had been with me, and yet there was a scratching at my heart that told me I could not know that for sure. I had still given up on caring for them, and the guilt was heavy on my little mind.
Peter came to a most unfortunate end when he was eaten whole by the museum python. Someone left the python’s enclosure door unsecured, and “Monty” helped himself, somehow, to a meal. I always admired my mother’s honesty with us about what happened. It was a flat and fact-based announcement: “The python got out and ate Peter. I am sorry.” My sister seemed more annoyed that my rabbit managed to avoid consumption than she did grief-stricken about Peter’s demise.
The python incident put a firm period at the end of the story, or so I thought.
Some months after Peter’s death, a black snake took up residence around the brick patio in our back yard. It was the perfect situation for him. The bricks heated up to a glorious baking warmth under the summer sun, and he could bask all forty inches of himself for hours undisturbed. My mother knew black snake in the garden was a good thing. Black snakes, or “rat snakes,” have no venom and are not aggressive toward humans. Shy and retiring, all they really want are three things. They want to lie on a rock in the sun. They want to be left alone. They want to eat small mammals.
This snake was doing well for himself on our property, and he no doubt was benefitting us as he ingested pests like mice, moles, and shrews that otherwise might have overrun our shared environment. Every now and then we would find one of his shed skins, long and lacy, lying on the patio. My mother named him “Oscar,” and she took a special pride in allowing him to co-exist with us. When other neighborhood mothers would shudder and say, “Betty, I just don’t know why you haven’t killed that snake. It’s hideous. Aren’t you scared he’ll bite the children?” she would laugh and present a lecture on the nature of black snakes and the long list of good things they bring to any house fortunate enough to attract them. My mother was loyal to Oscar, and he was constant and true to his nature, as we all expected he would be.
Then came the day when the nature of a black snake challenged mom’s allegiance.