They were making love by the light of the oil lamp she had given him for his birthday. He saw the flickering shadows through his half-closed eyes, and he felt her heels bump along his spine. An occasional whisper of air, heavy with the scent of jasmine blooming on the fence, drifted through the open window, crossing the bed like a cloud.
They had spent the afternoon hiking in the hills, green and lush from the winter rains, where they surprised a golden fox standing chest-high in a field of purple lupine. He looked at them, blinking, and then bounded away, his bushy tail swishing through the tall grass like a sensuous question mark.
Warren’s senses were so deeply embedded in their lovemaking that the rattling tin gong sounded unreal, an echo from a distant realm.
“What was that?” Susan whispered, pulling her hands from behind his head and rising on one elbow.
His movements slowed as they became voluntary again.
“I don’t know,” he replied hoarsely.
“The garbage can,” she said. “Someone’s out there.”
He cleared his throat. “Who could be out there?”
“Someone’s there,” she whispered. “I’m dialing 911.”
As he rose on his elbows, Warren felt her push him out with a contraction. She reached for her phone.
“Wait,” he said. “I’ll look.”
He crept across the room half crouching, feeling self-conscious and vulnerable behind his useless erection. He knelt before the open window and carefully parted the curtains.
It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing, and when he did he laughed.
“Don’t call,” he said. “It’s a raccoon. A huge one.”
“Jesus. Did he knock over the garbage can?” she asked.
“No, just the lid. He’s sitting on the porch with that stale baguette we threw out, munching away. Come look. He’s all silvery in the moonlight. He looks like Zorro or something.”
“I don’t want to see him. It scared the hell out of me.”
“He sends his apologies. And thanks us for the bread.”
“I’m not joking,” Susan said sharply, untagling the sheet at the foot of the bed. “It scared me.”
Warren returned to bed.
“I feel like a cigarette,” she said, untangling the sheet at the foot of the bed.
“What?” Warren said, blinking. “You don’t smoke.”
“I used to,” she said, pulling the sheet under her chin.
“You never told me that. When? When did you smoke?”
“When I was married. At the end. And just after my divorce.”
“Damn. On a night like this, with the fresh air and–”
“I’m not going to, for God’s sake. I don’t even have any. I just said I felt like it.”
He started to say something further, but stopped. After a moment he said, “I wonder where the raccoon stays during the day. They’re nocturnal, aren’t they?”
“Probably under houses,” she said, fluffing her pillow and lying down. “In storm sewers. Could you blow out the lamp, please?”
“Otherwise you fall asleep and then I have to get up and do it.”
“But, we were...”
“I’m not in the mood now. I told you it upset me.”
As she nestled into her sleeping position, he looked out again. The raccoon was gone. He stared for a moment at the empty porch in the moonlight, and then he walked across the room and blew out the lamp.
They had met a year earlier, during his spring break, at an outdoor cafe at the edge of the Berkeley campus. She was sitting over a cappuccino reading Go Down, Moses, wearing a sky-blue blouse of a textured fiber that made him think of shepherds and stone fences. Her hands were tanned and quiet, and her eyes moved slowly and looked with intensity before moving on. He told her he taught biology at a high school in San Francisco. She was working on her master’s degree in English.
He thought about her for the rest of the day, and that night he dreamed she was sitting on the roof of a car which noiselessly passed his house. How can it move without its motor running, he wondered. He looked at the license plate and saw that it was blank. He awoke panicked that he did not know her last name or phone number. Then he remembered the book. The next afternoon he scanned the master list at the book store and found an English class assigning Go Down, Moses. He checked the schedule and at the time the class was supposed to end, he waited outside the building. When he saw her walk down the stairs, her head held high, he felt he had known her for a long time. The sentence I loved her even before I knew her entered his mind, but he wasn’t sure whether he remembered it from a book or had thought it himself.
The better he got to know her, the more alike they seemed. She, too, avoided crowded places, eschewed trends, disliked noise, and craved simplicity and peace. Months later, when they “made house,” as she called it, they moved the tv out to the garage, hung maidenhair ferns in the shower, decreased the amount of furniture, and bought a wrought iron tree that held forty votive candles which allowed them to spend entire evenings without artificial light. This seemed to be the relationship for which his previous ones had been mere practice. She was the one for whom he had waited.
He never tired of watching the slow, fluid way in which she moved; even cutting celery was something she did with such simplicity that it seemed ceremonial. Did she know Zen, he once asked.
“No,” she said, “I’m not religious.”
“But in a way you are. You do things with a sacred care.”
She gave him a long, slow look and said, “I love that you notice that.”
Yes, he did notice, and being with her seemed to slow him down, allowed him to drink more deeply of the moment. Life with her was like breathing mountain air.
In his happiness he sometimes teased himself with what-if’s. What if he had not walked over to the cafe that afternoon? What if she had not been reading Go Down, Moses? What if she had cut class the next day? But these thoughts were like paper monsters children make for their play fear.
His real fears concerned her swings of mood–not so much that she had them, but that they shut him out, as if she wove a cocoon of isolation around herself. But everyone has moods, he thought. Because she often worried about finding a workable thesis topic, he thought that when she finished her degree she would feel better. One night she sat for over an hour, staring at a blank tablet in her lap. He stole glances at her from his desk where he was grading papers. She sat so still and her face looked so beautiful in the golden light cast by the forty candles that she seemed to him a work of art. When she let the tablet slid from her lap onto the floor, she said, “I know I’ll never get there.”
“A thesis topic?” he asked.
“Anywhere,” she answered.
It was in the spring, a couple of weeks after the raccoon had interrupted their lovemaking, that Susan called to him, “Let’s get a rabbit.” She was sitting at her desk, brooding over her thesis topic, and Warren was in the kitchen making a pot of minestrone. He walked out wearing his apron.
“For the soup?”
“As a pet, smart-ass,” she said, socking him playfully on the shoulder.
“What’s wrong with traditional pets–you know, cats and dogs? Goldfish.”
“Come on, Scrooge,” she said, pulling off his apron.
“Now?” he asked, excited by how happy the idea made her. She had been in a dark mood for a couple of days.
They brought home what the clerk said was a half New Zealand and half Red Satin, a reddish-golden bunny with large frightened eyes. While Susan sat in the rocking chair and gently stroked the bunny in her lap, Warren collected old towels and arranged them, nest-like, in a cardboard box. Susan watched him fasten the water bottle to the side with wire and fill a small dish with rabbit pellets. Then he sliced a carrot and a wedge of apple.
“Maybe she should go in her box now,” he said, laying his hand on Susan’s shoulder.
She took his hand and pressed it between her palm and cheek, still stroking the bunny with her other hand. Then she said quietly, “I think I’d like to have a child with you some day.”
Warren stood behind her, very still, as if the moment were a fragile glass ball.
The rabbit grew rapidly and the fright in her eyes gave way to a confident alertness that seemed never to rest. They decided that “Pope Bunnyface,” as they named her, should be a house rabbit. She adapted easily to a kitty-litter box, but they had no luck in preventing her from gnawing the legs of furniture, the ends of the rug, speaker cable. She tore wallpaper off in strips and jumped into the tub and shredded the shower curtain. Repellents from the pet store lost their effectiveness as soon as they dried. Susan believed that in time they could teach her the word no, but Warren said that they might as well try to teach the snails to stay out of the garden.
One Saturday morning Warren went to the lumber company with plans he had drawn up for a rabbit hutch. When he finished it that afternoon, Susan protested that it would be cruel to keep the rabbit in there all the time, so he went back for small gage wire to make the already fenced-in back yard rabbit-proof. Pope Bunnyface became a yard dweller by day and a hutch dweller by night.
The spring semester ended and Susan took an incomplete in her thesis course. She began a summer job working in the music library and Warren taught summer school. Every afternoon after work they relaxed in the back yard, their bodies touching at several points with a familiar ease. They stroked Pope Bunnyface when she hopped over to them, and when she leapt into the air and kicked out her back legs they laughed at her exuberance. Susan wondered how, when she ate blades of grass, they moved into her mouth as she chewed.
“She must draw it in by sucking, the way we do with spaghetti,” she said.
“I think it’s mechanical,” Warren said. “I think the chewing motion she makes with her teeth is circular and–” But Susan vetoed his theory by kissing his mouth. The pushed him on his back in the grass and straddled his chest. Looking into his eyes with mock intensity she said, “Spaghetti.”
Throughout the summer they followed the progress of the rabbit’s digging projects. She would begin a tunnel and work on it diligently for several days. The tunnel would lengthen until even her reddish brown rump and white tail disappeared. They laughed as dirt flew from a seemingly empty hole. If either of them went near the hole she would grunt and lunge toward them, making rapid clawing motions with her front feet. Once, when the rabbit was sprawled in the grass, back legs splayed out behind her, Warren knelt at her latest tunnel and stuck in his arm.
“This is her longest one yet,” he told Susan. “I can’t reach the end.”
Almost as soon as he had spoken, the rabbit hopped over to the tunnel, explored the entrance with her twitching nose, and then began frantically pushing the mounds of loose dirt into the opening, filling the tunnel it had taken her three days to dig.
“Why did you spoil it for her?” Susan asked, her eyes welling with tears.
Warren, who had been laughing, felt the blood drain from his face.
“I didn’t know,” he stammered. “I didn’t think I was desecrating it. I mean, she likes us.”
“Not around her tunnels,” Susan shot back. “You knew that.”
When the fall term started, Susan did not enroll. She decided to leave English for graduate study in history, pursuing a new interest in medieval herbalism. An article written by a professor in the history department had given her the idea.
“It seems like such an abrupt decision,” Warren said.
“Some decisions are abrupt,” she answered. “Besides, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“You have? You didn’t tell me that.”
“I don’t have to tell you everything I’m thinking, do I?”
“Well, no, but… medieval herbs?”
“I don’t think you understand,” she said, turning away.
So she continued her job in the library, began to study Latin on her own, and planned to apply for a transfer into the history department. She planted window boxes with rare kinds of herbs.
One night in early November, he asked her something that had been bothering him for weeks.
“Why don’t you ever tell me you love me anymore?”
“You really want to know?” she asked, looking directly into his eyes.
“Well, yes. Of course.”
“Because I don’t.”
He felt shot through by an electric jolt. She had said it without malice, without regret… without any feeling at all it seemed.
“But Jesus,” he cried, throwing up his arms. “Just like that?”
“I was going to tell you,” she said, “as soon as I found another place.”
“Another place?” He felt as if the very life were being drained from him.
“A place where my window boxes will get plenty of sun.”
After staring into his lap for a while, he asked, “What about Pope Bunnyface?”
“You can keep her,” she said.
“But she’s yours, too,” Warren said.
“The yard is here,” Susan said, gently, reasonably.
Warren was devastated. He could not eat or sleep. His hands shook. He lost weight. He had trouble concentrating. He could not cry.
His friends were at first sympathetic, but as the weeks wore on, they grew restless and distracted when he talked about the inexplicable turn his relationship with Susan had taken. “Time will heal,” someone told him. It seemed to him that time had ceased to move.
He took a special interest in accounts of broken relationships and of relationships which had endured crises and survived. He bought books on the subject. He called Susan and asked her questions.
“I feel that in a relationship I can’t be,” she told him.
“What did I do to keep you from being?” he asked.
There was a pause and then she said, “I feel like there’s a void in me that you fill up. I don’t want that.”
“But isn’t that what love is?”
“Then maybe I don’t want love. Not everyone does, you know.”
No, he didn’t know.
One evening in mid-December he returned home around eight o’clock. He had stayed at school to watch a late afternoon basketball game, and then he wandered the sidewalks indecisively reading menus in the windows of a half dozen restaurants. Finally he bought a slice of pizza and walked around San Francisco looking at the Christmas lights before driving back to Berkeley. When he started up the sidewalk he saw in the yellow glow cast by the porch light a note taped to his front door. Susan, he thought. It has to be from Susan. He thought about going in and pouring himself a shot of bourbon before he read it, just to prove that he could wait. But when he glimpsed the handwriting, he knew it wasn’t hers, and the most hope he had felt in a month escaped him in an exhaled breath. He put his key into the lock and paused to read the note. It was from the couple next door:
We have terrible news. We’re afraid a raccoon has killed your rabbit. We heard the noise and tried to scare it away, but it was too late. We’re very sorry.
He found his flashlight and hurried into the back yard. The night was clear and the moon cast a dim, silver light across the black grass. He thought of the twenty-four hour emergency pet hospital on University Avenue. Perhaps Pope Bunnyface was not dead. Perhaps she had escaped into one of her tunnels. She would need stitches and they would give her injections. He would call Susan and their shared worry and hope would reunite them.
The flashlight kept going out and he had to slap it against his thigh to get light again. He checked her favorite hiding places, and then he made a methodical search of the entire yard, dividing it into imaginary strips as search parties do. At last he turned toward the house in frustration and saw the dead rabbit on the porch.
He knelt over the rabbit. Streaks of blood on the stairs suggested that the raccoon had dragged her to the very spot where it had munched the stale baguette the previous spring. The rabbit’s head lay limply back, and the fur beneath her tail was soiled from the terror that had shot through her bowels.
He considered burying the rabbit, but it was a gesture for which he had no heart. He wrapped her in a sack and lay the bundle gently in the garbage can. Aware that the raccoon might return, he placed a concrete block on the lid.
He had been asleep a few hours when he came into a dream unlike any he had ever dreamed. He dreamed that he was the rabbit. It was night and he was in the back yard. The darkness glowed like blue light. He hopped through the thick, damp grass. The motion felt new, yet natural. Exhilarated, he leapt in the air, kicking out his back legs. Each blade of grass was as distinct as a blue reed. His nose twitched and the smell of chlorophyll made him hungry. He bit off some clover, and as he chewed, his tongue drew the stem and its sweet leaves into his mouth. So neither of us knew, he thought. It’s the tongue.
Suddenly the scent of a flesh-eater pulsed through his body, but as he coiled his back legs, he was set upon. Stabs of white-hot pain pierced his neck and skull, razor-knives from behind dug into his face and one eye like fire. His legs pumped helplessly, and with the one eye remaining he saw the end of the blue yard where he wanted to run but could not, could not, and a terrible breaking sound cracked inside his head, and his thin brittle rage shattered, and foul dark liquid shot in shame from beneath his tail. He wanted to cry out but his rabbit-mind thought, how impossibe, rabbits don’t cry, but as everything darkened he screamed.
Warren awoke screaming. He was on his knees in the bed, his legs caught in the sheet, and he was screaming. He would later remember how a long moment passed before he knew who he was, realized that the terror was a nightmare and that he was alive, kneeling in his bed, wet with perspiration. He put his hand on the back of her head, half expecting to feel blood. Then he began to cry. His weeping built to a wail, surprising him, and he let it come, wailing and sobbing, crying as he had not cried since he was a young child. At last his weeping trailed off into a whimper, and finally he took deep breaths.
He got up to put on a dry t-shirt. He thought of the remains of Pope Bunnyface in the plastic garbage bag, and he decided that as soon as he got home from school the next day he would dig the rabbit a grave.
Bill Smoot teaches humanities courses at Castilleja, a prep school in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the summers he teaches with the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison. His short stories and essays have appeared in a number of periodicals including The Sun, Crab Orchard Review, and Orchid. His work of nonfiction, Conversations with Great Teachers, was published by Indiana University Press.