In the smoldering half-light of the murky, moody space between darkness and dawn, when the world hushes as if holding its breath and pale objects float out of the gloom like ships in fog, I methodically, resolutely, feed shells into the Beretta shotgun. Each shell makes a crisp snick when it slides in.
I pull the lever back and load a shell into the chamber. The sound is almost explosive in the silence. With a gesture as automatic as breathing, my index finger sets the safety.
Outside, the low chattering of a wren and the pulsatory throb of crickets. A bobwhite whistles from the thicket, a single two-tone note pendulous in the darkness, an unanswered query that lingers for a moment like an echo before dissolving into nothingness.
Window up, screen removed, I scan the yard for movement.
At the outside corner of the garden, between the raised bed with its giant squash fronds and the low concrete wall of the old foundation hemming the garden proper, a small lump of bloody fur is just barely visible. An untrained eye would skip over it without the slightest hesitation, seeing in it—if it sees it at all—a shapeless gray form in a formless gray dawn, a dead leaf or clump of grass, nothing out of the ordinary.
So. The rabbit haunch has not been touched.
Come to me, I whisper. Come die.
I imagine the gray tabby slinking across the lawn, a stealthy feline shape the color of ash. When it comes, if it comes, it arrives unheralded, cloaked in shadows at twilight or predawn, preternaturally alert for every motion, every noise.
When it comes, it kills.
Feral cats are perfect killing machines, unmatched in ferocity or cunning. Most are nocturnal, exploiting the shadowy fringes of civilization and shifting between the wild and city streets with ease. Millions of native songbirds and other creatures are slain each year by feral cats, a catastrophe reaching into every nation, every province, every city. Difficult to trap, impossible to eradicate, their numbers are exploding in part because of mankind’s penchant for releasing unwanted pets into the wild, and in part because animal lovers are loathe to distinguish between personable feline companions and four-legged butchers.
But man, I think, is a better killer.
I want to prove it. And I settle in to wait, resting the shotgun barrel on the window sill.
In the beginning there was one lone eastern cottontail. It arrived on the day we buried Sheba, emerging from the thicket to sit watching the house as if yearning for something that had no name but consisted of emotion alone. That afternoon it was joined by another. From the two, many more, until the yard and surrounding fields were dotted with rabbits of all sizes, little and big, and all, it seemed, inquisitive about the man who talked and sang to them.
As late winter turned to spring and spring to summer, several stands of poison ivy grew near Sheba’s grave. No cairn was raised, no standing stones as marker or memorial, save for four small stones placed atop the dirt mound, two from the Flint Hills, one from Florida and the last from the far shores of Ireland.
For a while I took this as laziness, a curiously apathetic response to a loss so bewildering. Questions pursued like jackals, accusations and judgments I had no defense against. Everything suggested or proclaimed was true: no cairn. I stood condemned.
But the yard was graced with rabbits, and the rabbits watched me with an intensity I found familiar. Somehow, without fully understanding the method or mechanism of loss and longing, I fell under their spell. If Sheba and Mr. Bun were not reincarnated, if they had not returned in other form to this plane, then these cousins offered a solace I was only too willing to accept. I wanted to be lost in them, to shuck my humanity like a second skin. These were not mere mammals but totems; I wanted transformation or, at the least, guidance.
And, in a way, managed just that.
Their presence each morning, throughout the day, in early evening when shadows grew long, held me together. I spoke to them and sang to them and followed them around, or watched from the porch as they watched back. I let clover grow undisturbed, and protected the rabbits as best as possible. When the gray tabby approached I shot at it with the pellet rifle, hounded it from the yard, chased it through the field at night with flashlight and rifle, and yet for all that one by one the rabbits began to disappear, until at last their numbers simply crashed. Fields and lawns were emptied of life.
So drastic, and so sudden, was this collapse that I was left bereft. Certainly the red-tailed hawk that killed the rabbit whose haunch became my impromptu trap could not be blamed for the population decline, nor, I reasoned, could the gray tabby be so ruthlessly effective. Was a human involved? If so, it would explain the spookiness of the last rabbit, how it would flee at my approach or eye me warily.
The final straw was when we watched the tabby snatch our latest faunal addition to the yard, a wild hispid cotton rat. The small mammal had showed up several weeks earlier, and though it was a rat, its curious gait and furtive movements had delighted us. So much for the rat.
And so on a dark morning serene with cricketsong I waited and watched, one finger on the Beretta’s safety, and the sun rose into the sky and shadows withdrew and the day turned hot and I went back to work, and that evening when clouds gathered in the west I again removed the window screen and waited. The circadian rhythm marched onward unabated with no resolution or finale, a redundancy of uneventfulness that was, in the end, no more than a short lull.
We were sitting down to eat supper when I spotted the tabby. It lay in the shade of a birch tree, too close to the car for a clear shot from the back window. I grabbed the shotgun and dashed out the door, angling around the cars to approach from the rear. For a second the tabby was caught between the truck and the tree. I snapped the shotgun to my shoulder but it was gone in a flash, streaking toward the safety of the thicket with the tree between us.
Later, when the last rabbit emerged from the field to eat clover, I watched it from my vantage and thought of what it would feel like to stroke its long ears back and run my hand down its spine, how the long guard hairs would be bristly to the touch, and how the beat of its heart would match that of mine. And then my eyes scanned the edges of the thicket, the borders of the deep grass, the shadowed recesses beneath the trees, endlessly, resolutely, scanning.