First the left foot. Cram into tall hunting boot, zigzag laces through eyelets to the midway point, tuck tongue around shin and finish lacing. Knot tight, an extra tug for firmness. Repeat for right foot.
An elemental act, learned before the tyranny of a half-assed memory. Stooped over, long johns restrictive beneath pants, I suddenly wonder who taught me to tie my laces—my father, my mother, both? For that matter, who taught our sons the selfsame skill? Nothing comes but a familiar void.
It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Might as well ask who taught us to put on our pants one leg at a time.
And sense an underlying lie. It all matters.
In the next room, the Christmas tree pulses with alternating red green gold blue. Dusk is falling fast and gray and cold. I must hurry.
I slip the hook of the gaiters onto the left front boot lace and wrap them around my calf. Velcro to the knee. Thread the strap through the buckle and clamp down. Slide the elastic loop over the bottom of the boot. Repeat for the right boot.
The indoor/outdoor thermometer by the front door reads eight degrees of misery. What snow has fallen remains pristine except in places where vehicles have bladed it aside or where patterned by the tracks of birds and mammals. There is little of the former, restricted to the single gravel road and driveways. Of the latter there is an indecipherable maze, tracks crisscrossing the field, tracks entering and exiting the thicket, tracks circling the brush pile and shed, tracks linking one downspout to another. An entire world apart exists behind our backs, when we’re not looking or when we’re asleep.
Jacket, gloves, goose down hat. The Nikon goes over one shoulder, bandolier-style, where it hangs at my side, heavy as a brick. The attached 70-200 mm telephoto lens adds an imposing element of unwieldiness, but I need the reach. I’m hunting, after all.
The thought brings a bitter smile. Who are you kidding? You’re running.
Behind me the empty house and the varicolored lights blinking and blinking and blinking. I turn the knob and open the door onto an arctic terrain, and do not dally but step out and close the door behind me.
On Black Friday, Christmas trees sprang up all over town. We could see them through windows left uncurtained, their rainbow hues cheery against the monochromatic gloaming. In the succeeding days more houses were decorated with necklaces of lights, some of which resembled illuminated icicles dangling from eaves or raingutters, as if anticipating what would arrive within the week. Inflatable Santas trundled heavily-laden bags across lawns or, in one case, rode a gigantic Harley with a polar bear in tow. Reindeer cropped lawns or stood sentinel in starry incandescence. Peppermint bows trimmed cedars and pines.
On either side of our household the holidays in full throttle, while within our four walls a lackadaisical lethargy, less apathy than sluggish contentment. As in years past there would be few packages under the tree, if, that is, a tree was set up. Doing so required upending the living room, rooting through basement closets and dragging up an assortment of heavy tubs filled with Christmas gaiety. We’d already bought a new ornament to add to our collection. All we needed was impetus, a quality in short supply.
Being without a Christmas tree seemed a moral failing. One afternoon Lori brought up the smaller of our two trees and set it on a coffee table. I strung it with lights and a few Hallmark ornaments, most of them depicting rabbits. There was a rabbit in its warren with three small bunnies, a rabbit beside a watering can with a pair of chickadees, a rabbit behind a garden gate, a snowman patting a rabbit on the head. A few other ornaments added diversity; our latest was a stylized redheaded woodpecker with gold accents. Like a badger, I dug through the container for favorite decorations. I hung an angel dating to 1974. And then I found last year’s ornament.
Somehow I’d misplaced it. It had never been used, and now there seemed no reason to. The front showed a cottage with four windows, each containing a pet—dog, cat, parrot, rabbit. The back read, “Happy is the home that shelters a friend.”
That was all it took to summon the black hole. It yawned at my feet, depthless, Stygian, blacker than night.
I didn’t resist. Putting the ornament back in the container, I closed the lid and stepped into the abyss.
“Why not put the ornament on?”
Lori asks this as she knits a hat for her sister, her fingers working magic I cannot comprehend. The needles click and clack and go back and forth, the skein of yarn shrinks as if deflated. After several hours of this, a brightly-colored hat.
I just shake my head. Sometimes there are no words.
“Is it time for a new rabbit?”
Ah. The unspeakable question, now voiced.
For a long moment I remain silent, and then choke out, “Not yet. But close.”
Saying it gives my heart a little flutter.
Another evening, another dusk. I slip into my hunting boots, lace them tight. From a box in the basement I take a thick mat of premium timothy hay, Sheba’s leftovers, and walk out to the brush pile to sprinkle it on the snow. Movement within the tangled branches tells me I am not alone. I am watched.
Back to the house, where I turn and look back. The snow emits a sort of glow as if lit from within while on all sides shadows deepen and condense. The cold is bone deep when two rabbits emerge from the brush pile. I can barely make them out as they cautiously approach the hay and begin eating.
“Happy is the home,” I whisper, and retreat into the warmth of the house to hang one last ornament on our little Christmas tree.