Small Things in My Hand (part 3) | Elizabeth Gaucher

Oscar never changed, but his prey selection did. When he went from eating animals no one liked anyway to animals we owed cosmic reparations, it was a game changer.  A nest of baby rabbits appeared in the hollowed edge of a tree about 40 feet from the patio. Somehow they managed to live long enough to open their eyes and develop fur, though how Oscar ignored them that long is a mystery. He may have had more than enough to eat closer to the patio, and was just too lazy to slither over to the tree. The mother rabbit stayed close to her babies, and we could see her come and go from her nest. Oscar could see her come and go, too, and one day when she went, he made his move.

My mother saw this and swooped into motion as she had flown to the hutch before. The plan? There was only a goal. Get Oscar away from the babies. She grabbed a rake and snared him across the tines. From the house I could see only a wild woman with a long, surprised reptile on the end of a pole. The snake thrashed like a thick black stocking in gale force winds but my mother was undeterred. She ran with him to the edge of the woods, pulled the rake back over her shoulder and pitched Oscar with all her might over the hill toward the creek.

The obvious and naïve belief was that one can just throw a snake away. We all wanted it to be true, so we believed it. Of course, there are fewer creatures more tenacious than a snake; even the mild-mannered do not leave a place where all of their needs are met and life is good. Oscar was back almost immediately, and so began a daily dance between my mother and the black snake. What awed me most was my mother’s commitment not to kill him. She valued that snake, but he had crossed a line that she would hold, no matter how many times she had to take the fight to him. Those baby rabbits would be saved, and Oscar could go easy or he could go hard. But Oscar did not give up, and my mother eventually accepted that saving the rabbits meant they had to get out of the tree.

Wearing gloves, she took the babies and put them in a box, then carried them into the house. I remember seeing their little eyes shining like ebony beads as my mother held each one in a gloved hand and fed it some kind of milk or formula from a doll’s baby bottle. Their fur was brown, with smaller flecks of black hair. Their ears were tiny, and their little claws scratched the plastic bottle every now and then, making a soft but perceptible sound as they reached for nurture in a safe place.

Memories of childhood events are slippery. A child’s mind often clings to and obsesses on images and events that imprinted an emotion more than they imprinted a detailed fact. Sometimes we delete entire events or rub to blur the details of exactly how something resolved. I do not remember if my mother eventually had Oscar killed, though I am confident if he was terminated she did not do it herself. I do not know what happened to the baby rabbits once they left our bathtub, though I seem to have a memory of their restoration to the natural world. I do not know what happened to Lee or to the hutch, but I know the reasons why I do not make any effort to discover the definite answers to these questions.

The first is that after all this time, I believe any pieces of the puzzle that anyone else has are doubtless as worn by memory loss as are my pieces. There is a degree to which I am not even sure I have these two rabbit stories in the correct order; but I want to ignore that possibility, because even if they are not in the correct order, they are in the right order. The right order is the way we tell our life stories so that they make sense. Human beings often look to life and death in the natural world to sketch out and then paint in our most complex and unresolved stories. What is right? What is wrong? Is listening to fear a healthy way to navigate life? Are there any answers that could ever cover all of our conflicts so that we might know, with certainty, how to live in peace and harmony with the lives around us?

The human narrative tells us we are one with the world but also separate. There is something about mankind that keeps us unable to function seamlessly with the rest of God’s creation. We are forever trying to get back to the garden, but when we get there we still do not seem to know how to fit in.  It’s as if we can’t stop trying to fix something all the time, but those efforts only lead to more to fix.

We can remember, though, that we tried. And we can tell our stories until our lives make sense.

baby-rabbits

Small Things in My Hand (part 2) | Elizabeth Gaucher

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.

Small Things in My Hand (part 1) | Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia; she now makes her home in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and is a degree candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Elizabeth serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Childhood and Religion, a peer-reviewed online journal.  Her essay, “Rebranding a Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness,” was accepted for a collection,  A Spiritual Life:  Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, & Preachers (2011).  Her collaborative writing project Essays on Childhoodwas featured on West Virginia Public Radio.

Her memories of “the rabbits” reflect one of her most formative childhood events.

Small Things in My Hand (part 1) 

I think I was in the first grade when the rabbits came. Our family had been visiting cousins in Winchester, and for some reason we came back to West Virginia with rabbits, one for me and one for my little sister. It felt spontaneous and unplanned, exactly the way one is never supposed to take on companion animals. I sensed a friendly but strained acceptance of these creatures by my parents. There was a lot of smiling and reassurances and talk of where to get a hutch.

Both rabbits were young and fat; the word was they were siblings. My sister immediately proclaimed her pure white pet was “Peter,’ which left me with a black and white splotchy female I named after my cousin, “Lee.” The rabbits were nervous and always in motion. I was warned to make sure Lee got hard vegetables to cut with her teeth every day because her teeth would never stop growing and had to be worn down proactively. No one said what would happen if I didn’t provide the tooth-reducing food, and I presumed it was too horrific to even mention. It was understood. Provide the carrots or face a bloody future at the obscene gargantuan jaws of an angry animal. The rabbits scared me, but I tried not to let anyone else know that. One is not supposed to be afraid of rabbits. I tried not to let Lee know she frightened me, but I was sure that she could tell. My sister seemed to fare better than I did, but she was four years old at the most and not qualified to manage an animal on her own.

It was a matter of days before Peter and Lee were out of the house and into what I learned was a “hutch.” The hutch was made of wood and two kinds of wire. It was a house on stilts that kept its inhabitants up and off of the ground. Chicken wire created windows while a thicker, stronger wire woven into a tiny perfect pattern of squares like a chessboard served as the floor. I was grateful that cleaning up after the rabbits was easier now that their outdoor apartment floor let most of their potty break material fall to the ground.

Once the rabbits moved outside I started distancing myself from them in psychological ways as well as physical. It wasn’t long before I was feeding Lee through the chicken wire instead of opening the hutch door. It seemed safer. I found myself looking for ways to justify not picking her up, which of course led to longer and longer intervals between her visits to the house. If I looked in and the water bottle was full or full enough, even if I had not changed the water that day I told myself that the rabbits had water and nothing more was required of me. The same was true with the food pellets I was supposed to pour into the hard ceramic bowl on the floor of the hutch. Once the pellets became damp, probably simply from condensation and temperature changes outside, they attracted insects. I knew the rabbits needed fresh food, and yet I was becoming even more afraid of interacting with them. They seemed to be changing.

While they had always been skittish and unpredictable, they now seemed to hold their nervous energy for long periods. They remained still for several minutes, then leapt fiercely at the hutch door. They wanted out. I wanted them out too, but I could not figure out how to get us all free from this mess. What would my mother say if I confessed I was afraid of them? I had begged for them to come home with us and then instantly regretted it when she said yes. The bunnies in my storybooks were sweet, gentle. These animals were hardly vicious, but they were on edge. I wondered if I had failed them, if they once had potential to be wonderful pets and I had unlocked their wild beast hearts through my fear and neglect.