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Killing the Rabbit

A poet makes meaning of the meat she ate as a child

“. . . It was harder work than they

Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job…” 

—Brigit Pegeen Kelly, “Song”

 

THE DOMESTIC RABBIT comes in roughly sixty varieties. Some bred for fur and meat, others for show and companionship. Share this array of benefits with a four-year-old stretching her sticky fingers through cage holes to feel the velvet softness and plump warmth of a rabbit and she will counter, as I did in 1976, that the best part of a rabbit is the churning pout of its hare lips while eating a sprig of grass and the unmistakable surge of a racing heartbeat, which I felt the first time I was allowed to hold a rabbit in my arms. Hardheaded as I was then, I didn’t listen when my parents told me not to name them. Instead, I stood outside the cages and whispered their names, like a secret pact: Pearl, Snowdrop, and Buttercup. And they took their place in the world as the sweetest creatures I could imagine.

Months before this, we had abandoned the congestion of San Francisco to live more simply and grow our own food, the rabbits representing the first step toward this new life. In a small nowhere town in the mountains east of San Diego, where the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, my siblings and I grew browner and wilder in the freedom of the countryside. Contrary to what my parents hoped, people were not accepting of a Black man, his white wife, and their mixed-race children, though we found a few families willing to help us get started. We had nearly no money, most of it spent on a used twenty-five-foot trailer with a leaky roof, which they positioned on the edge of a trailer park where the mountain wilderness and its many creatures became our neighbors. But my parents, both suburban kids from Ann Arbor, Michigan, knew little about farming, and nothing about rabbits.

It was already September when the local farmer who sold the rabbits to Dad helped him build a run of raised cages just outside our trailer. The farmer and his wife had a sustainable farm, growing rabbits, goats, chickens, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Mom tried to put in a garden near the white boulders at the back of the yard, but soon realized a nest of rattlesnakes also occupied this location. From then on, Dad’s days started with a shovel and rattlesnake beheadings. The farmer showed Dad how to skin a five-foot diamondback and roast the meat over a campfire. This was the first time Dad had eaten something he’d killed. 

Some nights Dad and the farmer smoked pot in the flickering light of the campfire, the two men staring into the flames, discussing the value of working for yourself, of not being beholden to anyone.

By November, the does had dropped their first litters. Beneath their plump bodies, an abundance of furless pink and multicolored kits lulled blind and quiet in the hay. Almost as soon as the kits slid from their placenta sacs, the coyotes smelled the blood and came down out of the mountains during the night to try to pull them through the cage holes. By morning, we found the does with paws sore and bloody, eating their kits. A garish scene as we stared at a foot hanging from a doe’s mouth. The ones the does didn’t eat were kicked to the sides of the cage where the cold got them. Not even one kit lived long enough for their fur to come out velvety. The rabbits stared at my father with dilated eyes, a gaze that, after watching a few of them eat their offspring, struck Dad as more sinister than not. The monstrous display crowded my vision of the rabbits as sweet velvet fluffiness, and I declared that they were “bad rabbits,” preparing as I did to love the badness out of them somehow. 

The next night the coyotes came back, and we listened from inside the trailer to the groaning tussle of the cages as they tore at the wire unsuccessfully.

When the farmer arrived the next day, he said the rabbits were a lost cause: damaged feet and too much trauma to ever reproduce successfully again. “They are still good meat,” he assured my father. 

He showed my father how to grab the first rabbit—the black one I’d named Pearl—by the ears, so she couldn’t scratch his arm with her sharp nails. Bam! For the first time, I understood that a rabbit could scream. It can draw enough air into its lungs to expel some raw, off, cello-like note. Bam! He stunned the rabbit with the second hammer blow, but the sound was still moving through the yard. I was screaming.

The first time the stew was set before me, I went to bed hungry. The next time, I carefully ate around the rabbit flesh.

While Dad learned how to remove the head and rip the coat off in one motion, I stood inside the screen door of the trailer with my mother. I pressed my snotty nose against Mom’s hip, as she padded my shoulder. 

Intermingled with the horror was a fascination with the complexity of a rabbit’s insides. I felt with great acuity that we were not meant to look at the rabbit from this vantage point, or at least that I did not have the language for the intricacies of the body as meat. But I knew with no one telling me that the rabbit could not magically, as many favorite cartoon friends had, reanimate after this.

In my memory, it seemed to take all day to kill the rabbits. Skinning them, gutting them, then nailing their pelts to boards. Mom washed and bagged each carcass, delivering them to the freezer, pushing one body into a large pot on the stove. Then she chopped carrots, celery, and potatoes, adding this to the same pot, which she leaned over with satisfaction. 

When she set the bowl of rabbit stew in front of me that night, I started crying again. I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat. Not only the betrayal against my friends, but the smell of blood and urine still hung in the air, and the memory of the killing crashed through me like a great wave. I gagged. 

 “You’ll eat this or go hungry,” Dad said.

Looking around the table, I saw everyone hunkered over their bowls of stew, shoveling big spoonfuls into their mouths. We were poor and sometimes starving. Neither of my parents worked. Instead, during the summers we traveled around the West from art shows to flea markets, where my parents sold wire-woven jewelry. We never earned enough money to get us through the winter months, so we skimped and struggled from one month to the next, poverty making us desperate and stupid to nearly everything but filling our bellies. 

The first time the stew was set before me, I went to bed hungry. The next time, I carefully ate around the rabbit flesh. 

I took apart the rabbit’s body and tried to make sense of the value of life in the necessity of death.

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER, in my first poetry workshop as a sophomore at Humboldt State University, I wrote a poem from the point of view of a child watching a rabbit being killed. In it, I circled my father, felt the weight of the carcass in his grasp. And within those lines, finally, I ate the rabbit. The words just as laden and rank with blood and piss as the scene that day in 1976. I took apart the rabbit’s body and tried to make sense of the value of life in the necessity of death. I described the back legs flinging out from its body, seeing how each foot tried “to scrape at something, / but there was only air.” Later seeing how the legs convulsed “like a child being tickled.” In this first effort to capture the scene, I could not look away from the rabbit’s body, describing in uncomfortable detail the blade moving between coat and flesh, the “clear bubbles / appearing to pop / into strings of mucus.”

The workshop participants loved the poem. It was the first time someone told me that I was good with death. He meant, I think, that my descriptions were vivid and powerful, but I understood the greater truth, that a poem could be an experience if executed with imagery and language. I was a killer too.

Over the decades, as though possessed, I continued to write poems about killing the rabbits. I saw the universe in the eye of a dismembered rabbit’s head in gut pile. A few times I wrote from the point of view of the killer who took on God-like blame in doing what we all needed him to do, which was hard, but necessary work. I kept rewriting the poem, once as a mother leaning over a pot and stewing the meat to feed my family. 

The rabbit tasted of grasses. No. Like wind hitting dew-glazed emerald grasses on the edge of a park, and the dust clinging there. A little salt, some oregano. I braised and roasted her first, so her meat would be less stringy and more flavorful. 

The rabbit came to me through imagery. I let her leap. I let her scream. She got away in high summer grasses. How cathartic to let myself be hungry for images, for words, to face my father, the rabbit killer, in the orderly debate of a lined notebook. To sit down in front of that stew and feel the back of my stomach, but this time, in poem after poem, eat the whole warm mess.

Amber Flora Thomas is a poet and writer who believes a walk in the woods is a cure for nearly everything that ails us. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Eye of Water, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, The Rabbits Could Sing, and most recently Red Channel in the Rupture. She is finishing a fourth collection of poetry, Still in the Mouth, and continues to write essays that grapple with the then and the now. A native of Northern California, she currently lives in North Carolina on the shores of Pamlico River with a dog and four cats.