MARY MacDON­ALD

Chas­ing Rab­bits

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS -

When I pulled open the freezer drawer, I was look­ing for blue­ber­ries. What I saw in­stead was a pack­age of raw bones. The bones looked like a tibia or an ulna. Or pos­si­bly a fe­mur. They were red and raw, sawed into pieces, and frozen in a plas­tic bag. They were bones for the dogs. But the dogs didn’t like these bones. So, I’m go­ing to give them back to the man I pur­chased them from. With these bones in my freezer, I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep any­way because I’m think­ing about you and that girl. That girl was on the news tonight. Some guy in a green bike hel­met was on the news too, say­ing how he found her life­less at the bot­tom of a slope be­neath some leaves when he was out rid­ing his bike. He slid down the path, and the girl was ly­ing there like she’d slid too. Only the girl wasn’t mov­ing. He un­cov­ered her fore­head and her nose and her mouth, and he could see she wasn’t breath­ing. How did she get there? To­day was my birth­day. Birth­days re­mind me of co­conut cream cakes dis­cov­ered in sum­mer hol­i­day town bak­eries and of choco­late rip­ple ice cream and long days at the lake in the scorch­ing sun. No, they don’t. That’s the shred of a mem­ory I cling to, like the flap­ping flag at my child­hood sum­mer camp, the can­vas faded by wind and weather af­ter sum­mer was gone. Birth­days stir up a long trail of mem­o­ries. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years, how many birth­days; still, the black clouds gather. I was leaf­ing through pho­to­graphs. Against my will, my thoughts started swirling like a twis­ter un­til they’d picked up ev­ery­thing in my clut­tered past and dropped it into the present. Be­fore I knew it, I was star­ing at a heap of de­tri­tus and try­ing to make or­der out of this jum­bled life. Maybe I’ll never know who’s good and who’s bad. Who’s guilty and who’s in­no­cent. No one will help me with this. It would be easier to walk away and for­get ev­ery­thing. Ex­cept that my hands are the same as your hands. And I eat my or­anges the way you did, cut­ting them into quar­ters with the skin on, suck­ing out the juice like a lemon, un­til the four emp­tied out quar­ters are all that’s left on the plate.

When we were chil­dren, you used to walk me home from school. Mom and Dad were never home af­ter school to greet us, so you said, What’s the hurry? We could walk all over town on the way. We wouldn’t get into trou­ble. Time didn’t matter in our fam­ily. We would walk down Main Street peer­ing into shop win­dows un­til you saw some­thing you wanted to look at and then we had to go in­side. You’d sit on the floor at Sor­bie’s store read­ing comic books, gone. I didn’t know what to do with my­self. I’d walk up and down aisles, look at magazine cov­ers, think about cross­ing the street to the candy store, but you said, No, we’d go later. One day I had to pee so badly, and you wouldn’t help me, so I walked into the al­ley be­tween Sor­bie’s store and the Rex­all Drugs. No one was there. I backed my­self into the wall, closed my eyes, and tried to hold on. Then pee drib­bled down my leg and over my lace an­kle socks and onto my shiny black shoes. I leaned into the wall, not mov­ing, wet and alarmed at what I had done. And fi­nally, when I came to get you, still sit­ting on the floor read­ing, you looked up, said noth­ing, and took me home. Do you re­mem­ber the sum­mer at the lake you stabbed those large­mouth bass? I didn’t even know you owned a knife. You’d caught two or three fish. Maybe more. I fig­ured we would have them for din­ner. Dad would have been proud. When it was time to go, you took the fish out of your creel, lay them care­fully side by side on the end of the dock. You for­got I was there. You whis­pered, You are beau­ti­ful. Then your face grew dark, and you yelled, You’re noth­ing, and pulled open your sheath and slammed your sil­ver blade, one by one, into their bel­lies, un­til the fish stopped wrig­gling. Hairs crept cold up my neck. A black cloud rolled in over the lake and the air grew icy. I was jit­tery and chilled and wished for mit­tens and a wool hat. You never looked up. I didn’t know you then. Not re­ally. Even though we shared the same bun­ga­low, the same par­ents, most of the same friends, a split class­room in school. Do you re­mem­ber the green Peu­geot? Our first ten-speed. How I dreamed of that bike af­ter I saw it in the win­dow of the bike shop on Wyan­dotte Street. I begged Dad, never giv­ing up un­til he couldn’t be in the same room with me with­out cov­er­ing his ears. If we’re go­ing to buy you two a bike, let’s look at the hard­ware store, he’d said at first. I knew if he could see for him­self how el­e­gant and per­fect the Peu­geot was, all alone on dis­play in the shop win­dow, he’d fall in love with it too. Been look­ing at this bike in the win­dow since it ar­rived, he said to the sales­man, and shook his hand the way he shook ev­ery­one’s hand down at The Ob­server. Ed­i­tor

of the paper, he said. He was proud of that. Now here’s a bike I would have loved when I was young. A real air of con­fi­dence, act­ing like the whole thing was his idea. Which was weird, because what he said to us was that that bike was a rac­ing bike and not a bike for a cou­ple of kids. The sales­man de­scribed all the fancy rac­ing fea­tures: the steel con­struc­tion, Ja­panese gears, and French Reynolds tub­ing. What was a de­railleur? I didn’t dare to ask. He did it nat­u­rally, not push­ing the sale. Then he looked at me, saw the light in my eyes, and said, Can’t think of a nicer way to get to school than this baby. I still can’t believe Dad bought the Peu­geot. He was such a tight­wad. But he did buy it. And we had a kind of free­dom with that bike, didn’t we? For a few months. Then you stopped bring­ing it home. It’s at Mitch’s place. Go get it if you want it, you said, when I pestered you. Your eyes never leav­ing the tele­vi­sion. I’d go af­ter it for a while. Then I got fed up and asked Dad to make you bring it home. You never did. One day Mr. Greel­ing, our math teacher, brought it back to our place. Said he found it on his front lawn and rec­og­nized it right away. The chain was rusted, and the gears were locked up, and I was shocked at how old and creaky it was. The paint was chipped, and I could barely make out the block let­ter­ing that spelled PEU­GEOT on the tube. My eyes got watery. I knew no one in our fam­ily was go­ing to re­pair that thing. I never rode our bike again. Where did you go? Once or twice, in my dreams, I found my old walk­ing shoes and met you on the road. I’d be on the path we used to take, out of town, over the Mait­land River, where we’d climb up the east bank, then walk along the CPR tracks, lis­ten­ing for the train. I loved our walks. Go­ing nowhere. See where the nose takes us, you’d say. Mostly we were silent to­gether. Once I asked you about what she’d done. I’d heard you cry­ing in your room. You plucked a leaf from a hang­ing branch. I don’t care, you said, non­cha­lant. It was the only time you spoke of her. I never for­gave her. She’s an old woman now, the one who pointed your nose into a filthy brown car­pet and kicked you with her heavy brogues. You were braver than me; you walked all alone into the ceme­tery and ate your lunch among an­cient red oaks and our French-Cana­dian Scot­tish an­ces­tors, and yelled back at me, Come in, there are chil­dren in here. I never did. I said I was afraid we’d get caught. I was ac­tu­ally afraid of the small head­stones with an­gel wings. Then you met me back on the trail, clicked open your pock­etknife, aimed it at a tree, flung it un­til it stuck and we were wild with laugh­ter.

The last time I vis­ited our mother, I stole a hand­ful of pho­tos. When she wasn’t in the room, I stuck them in my coat pocket. There was one grainy black-and-white pho­to­graph of you and me. We were five or six then, crammed around a pic­nic table in party clothes and paper hats, with a bunch of our friends I don’t even rec­og­nize any­more. We were young chil­dren with fa­thers and moth­ers. The pic­nic table was set with wild­flow­ers and pa­prika eggs, fresh peaches, and lemon­ade. And birth­day cake, of course. To­day is Nel­son Man­dela’s birth­day, too. He would have been nine­ty­nine years old to­day. He was eighty-seven when he wrote his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. You mailed his book to me one sum­mer for my birth­day. No return ad­dress, not even a note. How long are you go­ing to go on like this? I read once that when the wheels come off a char­iot, they don’t all come off at once. They fall off one at a time un­til one day the char­iot is parked and aban­doned on a rut­ted road and it doesn’t run any­more. I read the book, all 630 pages, the day it ar­rived. I sat out in the back­yard un­til the sun was over­head and my eyes were see­ing dots in­stead of words. Then I moved in­side, poured a bowl of blue­ber­ries, and flat­tened my­self out on the couch un­til I was half­way through. By noon, the dogs man­aged to po­si­tion them­selves, one at my feet and the other one at my arm, des­per­ate to go out. So, I took a break and walked them to Span­ish Banks. They rolled in the mud at low tide. I walked bare­foot, the thick mud ooz­ing be­tween my toes like frothy pumice, far­ther and far­ther, to­ward the sea. The Good­bye Graf­fiti guy was at the beach again, spread­ing paint with a gi­ant roller over the re­tain­ing wall. One day, graf­fiti, the next day, paint over. Back and forth. I wanted to read the whole thing from the very be­gin­ning. All the words writ­ten un­der that putty-coloured paint. Some­body was try­ing to say some­thing. The Good­bye Graf­fiti guy drove off. I laughed at my­self star­ing at a blank wall, leashed up the dogs, rinsed my feet, and we climbed the hill back home. Af­ter that, I spread my yoga mat on the ground, lay down and read un­til I’d finished the whole thing. Man­dela’s eigh­teen-year im­pris­on­ment on Robben Is­land, his life­long strug­gle against apartheid in South Africa, and his life af­ter his re­lease when he be­came pres­i­dent of the African Na­tional Congress. That’s a lot of life for one man. There are parts of his story I never knew. His given name was Rolih­lahla. It means to pull a branch of a tree.

If you want to un­der­stand for­give­ness, you should have a dog. Once I was so an­gry with you for hang­ing up the phone on me, I threw my cof­fee cup across the room. It landed on the floor and shat­tered like mir­ror glass. I cried and pushed one of the dogs out of the way when he raced to me. Still, he licked my face and sat by me. A dog will of­fer for­give­ness, not once or twice, but end­lessly. Like it says in the Bi­ble, sev­enty times seven. My two ter­ri­ers come from the West High­lands of Scot­land. They are tough and stub­born, their tem­per­a­ments forged from the harsh north­ern weather and ge­og­ra­phy, like ours are sup­posed to be. But they are hunters, too. In the east­ern cor­ner of Jeri­cho Park, where we walk ev­ery day, there is a rab­bit war­ren. I was shocked at how crazed the dogs be­came the first spring day we walked there. I wasn’t think­ing, and had both the dogs off leash. The rains had stopped, and the smells of the earth and the sea and the first blooms of cro­cuses were in the air. The kind of af­ter­noon you want to book­mark. Then, their stubby noses rose up. I for­get they have an ol­fac­tory bulb forty times the size of ours. When they smell some­thing, they don’t ig­nore it. They took off, ef­fort­lessly slid­ing un­der thorny bram­bles I had to shoul­der my way through. Branches and more branches un­til I was in­side. Then it was like a door had closed. Sud­denly we were in another world, of cir­cu­lar paths worn like a race­track, and smaller paths, and blocked paths, and dirt piled into heaps where the holes hid the en­trance to bur­rows and un­der­ground tun­nels. I could see noth­ing but the hind ends of them as they spun around out of sight. They raced through the war­ren with me chas­ing af­ter them half mad with fright. Fi­nally, they po­si­tioned them­selves, mo­tion­less, at the open­ing of a bur­row, wait­ing. It was rain­ing again by then, and they were soaked and shiv­er­ing, and the day­light was end­ing. Their fo­cus un­nerved me. If a rab­bit had come out of that hole, it was not go­ing to go free. And who would be to blame? Why did you send me that book? I want to ram some­body with the heel of my boot. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. The prob­lem is I don’t know who to ram. I am glued to my seat at the din­ing room table and watch­ing as she yells at you. Where were you? All I asked you to do was to mow the lawn. Can’t you do any­thing you’re asked? Come and go as you please—what do you think I’m run­ning here? A board­ing house? I’m shak­ing so hard I spill my milk. Then she yells at me, too. But it’s you who has to go sit in the cel­lar un­til din­ner is over. If Mother were here now, I’d lock her in the coat cup­board. I’ve

been alone in that cup­board a long time wait­ing for her. It’s quiet in the cup­board. The cup­board is like a mud­room, the an­te­room be­tween the out­doors and the house. There are coats and win­ter boots. Crates stacked in the cor­ner with veg­eta­bles. And boxes of the old speeches she wrote for the mayor. Taped and marked with the year. All her life an assistant. Never the mayor. The cup­board is cold. Af­ter the news story with the guy in the green bike hel­met, I turned off the TV and went out into the yard and gazed up at the sky. I saw only crows. Then an ea­gle flew over­head. I was look­ing for you in the cu­mu­lus clouds. At first, I couldn’t see any­thing, just white shapes like inkblots in the dim­ming sky. Then I saw your nose, your chin—saw you—the way you would run, with one arm swing­ing out from your side, like a busted wing. Re­mem­ber when your friend Gael asked, What are you run­ning from? I wanted to flat­ten her then. I’m just run­ning, you said. I’ve only seen you once since you left home. Ten years ago, at the Granville Is­land Mar­ket. You were shock­ingly thin, sinewy as a tightrope walker, your pants hitched high and belted at the waist. I be­gan walk­ing to­ward you when I saw there was a young girl be­side you tug­ging at her too-snug dress. Well, that was our min­is­ter’s daugh­ter. As soon as I rec­og­nized her, I froze. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. You swat­ted her hand un­til she stopped, low­ered her eyes, and gripped the strap of her purse. The girl was wear­ing red lip­stick. She was uneasy and too young for those things. What was that girl do­ing there with you? I’m ashamed now that I didn’t say some­thing be­fore you dis­ap­peared into the crowd. I wanted to call out to you, Come back. We’ll do this over. What I should have done was call out to the girl, Look out! I walked back­ward, turned and hur­riedly crossed Granville Is­land, past stalls of fruits and veg­eta­bles, the wood­work­ing co-op, fish­ing boats, and through Vanier Park. The wind pushed against me. I pushed back for over an hour with­out stop­ping. You had kin. That knowl­edge burned into my brain with ev­ery step. I walked far­ther and far­ther from you. As soon as I reached my lit­tle house with the two white dogs and the stacks of books and full cup­boards, I sat on the floor. And when I couldn’t wait any longer, I picked up the phone and called Mother. When she said hello, I started to cry. Sun burned into the room, and there were dust motes, and the room was a river and I was float­ing and bob­bing, and the river was all cur­rent and shal­lows and bends and fall­ing rock.

I asked if she’d talked to you lately. Your brother was un­lucky all his life. Noth­ing worked out for him, she said. I don’t believe it was his fault. I’m try­ing to hug her. I’m hug­ging a slip­pery hol­low of drift­wood with sto­ries and no podium. Assistant to the mayor but never the mayor. I should have asked about the girl. I should have phoned some­one else. Some­one who would have pro­tected that girl. I crawled over the car­pet. Across con­ti­nents and into dark­ness. I crawled back onto the couch. Stop var­nish­ing, I said to her. Do you hear me? But I had hung up the phone al­ready. I live by a school. I see you in ev­ery child who walks by. Then I close my eyes, and I imag­ine that girl. Only now she is no longer a child. No one is speak­ing. I pull back from the scene like I’m a wide-an­gle lens try­ing to see the whole room. I’m search­ing for a win­dow. Or a door. An en­try place where the res­cuers might have bro­ken in to save her. The body was quiet. Her wrists were red and bent like wire hang­ers. I hate that my imag­in­ing takes me back to you. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn in my bed. There is pres­sure on my head. I push back on it with the palm of my hand. The pres­sure doesn’t stop. I heard voices pass­ing in the street. Men’s voices. One sounds like a ra­dio an­nouncer. I re­mem­ber our mother and fa­ther sit­ting in the liv­ing room talk­ing in low voices. I am at the top of the stairs lis­ten­ing. I am wear­ing py­ja­mas. The room is dark, save for the red light of Dad’s cig­a­rette. The red light is danc­ing. They are mum­bling. I move down a step. Then two more steps. Strain­ing to hear. We will . . . He has to go. There are hos­pi­tals. No. What are you talk­ing about? I lis­ten, stretch­ing my ears down the stair­case. I know some­thing is wrong. We have to send him some­where, she says. No, he says. Se­crets whis­pered in dark­ness. He tapped his cig­a­rette into an ash­tray. The room is dark again. If I call the po­lice, this will be in the news­pa­per. Dad’s news­pa­per. Peo­ple will know. The dogs are rest­less and don’t set­tle un­til I lift them onto the bed. There is a mo­ment in the chase when the rab­bit stops run­ning and sits still. Does it stop because it has given up or because it will blend in with its sur­round­ings and all eyes will be averted for the time be­ing? At that mo­ment, it will re­treat to its hole and safety. I al­ways for­get that they have done this be­fore. No one in our fam­ily is go­ing to re­pair this thing. It’s the mid­dle of the night. I don’t even know where you are. God for­give me. Be­fore morn­ing. Be­fore I change my mind. Be­fore light washes in.

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