Rabbie and the Drowned Lands

Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.  – Henry David Thoreau

Around my twenty-first birthday, when the wooded hillsides were littered with bloodroot, I drove from my college in Vermont to my parents’ home in New York on the southern end of Lake Champlain. On the dirt road leading to their house, I spotted three bright-eyed kits tumbling out of a hole under the roots of a tree.

Six months later and thirty yards further, I spotted something white on the dirt road. I slowed to a stop and got out. It was a white rabbit lying on its side, fur mussed and yellowed on her hip. She cocked her head, looking at me.

Closer, I saw that her left back leg jagged out at an odd angle. I leaned down, palms pressed against my knees. She was alert, but not panicked.

Her condition, I surmised, had developed over time. Once domestic, she had either escaped or had been set free to survive in the wild. A car, perhaps a steel trap, had broken her leg and the bone hadn’t set right. Hobbled, she was starving.

If I left her there, she would probably die in days. There was resignation in her eyes. Maybe the vixen that lived under that nearby tree would find her. That would be merciful. But in her eyes, too, I saw that she didn’t want to die. Now, more than ever, I understood this.  

She was practically weightless. Opening the passenger-side door, I cradled her in one arm. I set her on the floormat.

Against the electric blue autumnal Adirondack sky, leaves blazed tangerine, pomegranate and lemon. As we crested the hillside, Rabbie lifted her head. Her eyes searched around her.

“Your okay, “I said. I meant she was safe – no rabbit stew. I knew not to promise that she would ultimately be okay. I was learning that that didn’t always happen.

At the terminus of the dirt road I pulled through the archway Dad had crafted of skinny cedars cut on their forty acres, bark still on. It was tall enough to accommodate his tallest sailboat. I parked next to their white-trimmed, green farmhouse wedged between a forested hillside and Lake Champlain.

Mom stepped out of the kitchen door. “Oh Crystal…” Her voice was full of emotion. She held her arms up and out as she approached.

What did she see? Did she notice the hard angles of my shoulders and hips under clothing that hung loose on me? The dullness in my eyes? That I had no smile?

She hadn’t seen me since May when Abe had dropped to the lawn and banged his arms on the ground. “I love your daughter,” he had yelled. “And I’m going to marry her and take care of her. I’m going to protect her.” He told her, too, that she was manipulative and – his favorite word – insecure.

Mom told Abe she was shocked. She had been nothing but nice to him, treated him like family, welcomed him into her house, then this. In that act, he had violated the unspoken rule to let what lay between me and my mother be ours and ours alone. Mom told me she wanted nothing to do with me if I was with him. After that, we spoke once over the phone. She had never seen Dad cry like he had cried, she told me.

Eventually, I left Abe, but not for them. I had left for me.

My chest tightened, and I couldn’t meet her gaze. “I found someone,” I said instead. I opened the passenger door.

The hug never happened. Instead I showed her Rabbie, explained where I found her.

“This is you,” she said. “Rabbie is your animal totem.”

My muscles stiffened.

What I missed then and realize now is that I am a rabbit, at least on the Chinese zodiac.

I carried Rabbie in, then returned to the car for the backpack that contained the only clothes I had lived with for months. In the house, I found Mom in her Boston rocker, Rabbie wrapped in a towel in her arms. She rocked vigorously, tenderly. Her black reading half glasses with their chain sat on the end of her nose. She cooed to Rabbie like she would a baby, sang old fashioned nursery songs to her.

My chest was leaden. I needed space and fresh air. I stepped onto the front porch. The air was cool, yet the sun was lightly warm on my skin. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere left to go.

That night, when Dad, home from his job at the paper mill, was puttering in the front yard, I searched him out and told him that Mom was driving me crazy pretending that rabbit was me, that its fate and mine were tied.

“She lost you for a while”, Dad looked at me.

Hearing these words from him, I realized I was not the first person she had lost.

More lightly, he said, “She missed you and she’s worried for you.”

The next day, I brought Rabbie to a vet who had agreed to look at her at no cost because of the nature of how we found her. She had likely been hit by a car, might have internal injuries, might not make it. I shared this news with Mom later.

“If we can heal Rabbie, we can heal you,” Mom told me.

I said nothing.

Two days later we awoke to find that Rabbie had died in the night.

Mom cried.

I didn’t. Any space I could have had for grief was consumed by Mom’s grief and her concern for what the death of that rabbit meant for me.

Dad buried Rabbie in the front yard where the thick, green lawn crested in a small hill. Standing there, you could look across the railroad tracks through the trees, now shedding their leaves, to the expanse of Lake Champlain once referred to by the Mohawk as the Drowned Lands.