Nature and terrain decide placement: Behind the house in a failed garden overgrown with every manner of sapling, within a tiny clearing induced by an old carpet laid down years ago to prevent the growth of weeds, beneath a thin layer of grass mantled with a skiff of snow crisscrossed by the indecipherable puzzle of rabbit tracks. Ten feet from Mr. Bun’s rugged cairn.
Twelve degrees of misery and an icy north breeze flay our exposed skin.
The shovel rebounds, skitters off the underlying weave. I place the blade point down and hop onto the knurled trailing edge, my not-inconsiderable weight flexing the fiberglass shaft, and for a moment teeter there, an ungainly scarecrow, conjoined to the frozen earth by a thin sliver of cold steel. And topple with no undue effect.
Alternate tactic, shovel as spear. Raised high, stabbed downward, blunted by the unseen carpet, a shock wave ripping through my hands and rolling up my arms into my shoulders. Rebuffed, I use the blade as probe until I locate an edge. After prying up a small lip, I hook the exposed carpet with the shovel’s shank and yank until it rips free. The moldy material peels back like layers of an onion, exposing the rich brown Kansas soil.
The blade bites deep, removes the top crust. A hole begins to form. I switch to a posthole digger and repeatedly slam it into the wet ground, scissoring out thick meaty clumps of clay.
“How deep do you have to go?” Lori asks.
There are so many endings to a story such as this, or placements we may consider as endings, though most ends are really beginnings of another sort. As I’m smoothing the mound we have together made, Lori brings two small flat stones and sets them on top. One for her, one for me; more to follow, a cairn to graze the clouds. We say our farewells and turning begin the long walk back to an empty and silent house.
Another ending: I drive into the yard late at night, headlights flooding the backdrop of the thicket and a small encrusted hummock of mud clods and two sentinel stones, and call out “Sheba, I’m home!” But she is not. Sheba is gone, and I am undone.
Each time I walk into my office and find the cage missing, or listen for the soft pad of footfalls, that, too, is an ending.
Or in the mornings when I rise groggy from sleep, start the coffee and reach for a stalk of broccoli before realizing there is no longer a need, a betrayal of the want still vibrantly extant—an ending.
But to this story there is only one beginning, that of a small black-faced Angora rabbit standing in her cage, paws hooked to the metal grid, studying me with lustrous velvet eyes, and how I crossed the room and knelt to unlatch the door and take her into my arms. How she studied me. How she chose me.
She chose me. The thought lingers, raising a host of unanswerable questions concerning the mystical bond that occasionally forms between animal and man. Not pets, nor even companion animals, though that designation hits closer to the mark. Closer than most family members, our familiars, as essential to us as we are to them. Parts of a whole. Completion.
Sheba, as we named her, was with us for four years and four months. In that short time I grew closer to her than to anyone other than my wife, to the point where I hated to even leave the house, knowing how she would miss me. And I her. The few times I left for week-long trips were excruciating, though I tried masking it from others. Lori alone knew that depth of anguish and allowed me the freedom to express it privately between us.
Later, she said, “You were with Sheba more than me the past few years.” It’s true, and it wasn’t enough.
The last night she was with us Sheba was having difficulty breathing, but moved between us as if saying goodbye, her wet tongue licking our fingers, and I thought of the things we always meant to do and never got around to doing, the things we tried so hard to convey, even at the last when the time for words was past and there were only the slow unfolding moments, and then even the moments were gone.
And here is one last ending that will also serve as a beginning: On the morning we buried Sheba, a small gray cottontail stepped from the brush pile and stood watching the house. Its tiny ears were erect, one cocked backwards and the other toward the man staring out the window, every inch of its body alert, tense, almost expectant. And as the man watched, a second rabbit appeared. The two studied each other across a short span as if meeting for the first time, and after a very long spell of making no effort to move closer finally crossed the space with cautious hops and touched noses. And the man, in the way humans are prone to look beyond the ordinary, reached out a hesitant finger and touched the window pane, and in a cracked voice said, “Sheba. Mr. Bun.”
They were there all day, usually by the brush pile, once by the garden. One chased the other around the broken stub of the hackberry, past the brush pile and behind the shed to emerge in gray streaks of motion beneath the camper. Together they cropped the short dry grass or explored the compost heap, or, resting in a patch of warm sunlight sheltered from the wind, looked out over the yard with what can only be understood as utter contentment.
That evening, as dusk filtered the fading light into a gray sodden blanket and the horizon bled fire, the two rabbits blended into the shadows and were gone. Nor have they returned, though the man waiting by the window watches and watches, and watches some more.