Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  

Skinning The Rabbit

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of nine books of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, most recently the novel Weekend. Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada, and has renewed marriage vows atop the Empire State Building, on the back of an elephant in Indonesia, in a hot-air balloon over the Namib Desert, and in a horse-drawn carriage under the Eiffel Tower. Even so, the marriage failed.

My father and brother constructed the trap in the basement workshop. I followed them to the forest behind the barn, where they would set it. We lived on a thirteen-acre farm called Merryview, where we raised horses — hunters, jumpers, and Shetland ponies — along with other animals.

My brother was tensed with excitement as they assembled the trap under the pines, practicing how it would snap, resetting it with pride.

That night I cried myself to sleep.

The next day my father held up a limp white rabbit by her ruff, her pink-tipped teats streaming with milk that hit the dust like white raindrops. He tossed her on the stump where he did his executions. The ax severed her spinal cord with a pop.

My father presented me with her lucky rabbit’s foot. “The real deal,” he called it because he’d “made” it. I could feel her sweet bones, move them apart, flatten them out, look at her nails, find their quick.

“Now you have an actual one,” he said proudly.

“I don’t want it,” I said, shoving it at him. I needed to wash my hands.

“Oh, Janie,” he said. “You can hang keys on it.”

“I’m a kid.”

He looked down at me with a familiar mix of exasperation and pity. “Why are you always like this? You make yourself so unhappy.”

He reached to ruffle my hair, to say there were no hard feelings; I shrank. I had spent two days tearing at the ground around the trap under the pine, digging with a kitchen spoon, now twisted, trying to find the rabbit’s babies. I still had a pill bottle full of milk and an eyedropper in my pocket ready for them. My fingernails were filthy and broken; I was dirty up to my armpits. I had listened for them, but all I’d heard was the groan of branches, the birds in the canopy.

What did starvation feel like?

“Jane, you have to stop being so squeamish,” my father said, gripping my wrist. “Come, come with me.”

I didn’t want to.

“Follow me.”

In his basement workshop he took the rabbit’s other rear foot apart to show me ulna, carpus, metacarpus — the skeletal structure that had once allowed her to hop. I wanted to say a metacarpus in a rabbit’s foot on a forest floor was worth two under his box cutter and pliers.

Whenever my family was being cruel to animals, they said, “Keep that away from Janie,” or, “Whatever you do, don’t let Janie see that.”

That night my mother said to my father, “See what you’ve done, Alex? Look at her. See what you’ve done?”

 

Anytime I found a robin’s egg — turquoise treasure of the hedgerow, blue gift of spring — it was almost always shattered, the nestlings missing. I took unbroken eggs home and set them in an empty aquarium under a heat lamp, that yellow zzzzing bulb, eyedropper ready beside the glass to feed them mushed-up worms from the morning green lawn. They didn’t hatch into anything.

 

When I was just two, I had wandered from the sandbox while my mother answered the telephone. My disappearance caused a hullabaloo. It brought trucks and sirens, firemen and police.

“Janie, we thought you’d drowned,” my mother said years later. “They told us you were dead. We were making plans to dredge the pond to find your body. We were talking about your funeral.”

They’d found me wedged between an unused exterior door and a screen door. I remember things: how the rusted screen crumbled under my fingers; the part of the screen door that was soft, into which I could push my pudgy fingers.

There had been a body once in our pond, a teenage boy whose leg had gotten caught in the reeds. I didn’t know what he had looked like, but I still saw him in my dreams, his yellow-green face canted toward sunlight and air, his eyes surprised that he had breathed water.

 

My father worked at his family’s dairy in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, and my mother stayed at home. When she and I ran errands in the Comet, we passed a mink farm: rows of cages, brown weasel-like animals slinking up branches.

I wanted my mother to stop so I could get close, but she said, “Ew, no, Janie, they’re vicious. They got in the chicken coop and killed the hens — and not to eat, either, just for the joy of a bloodbath.”

I couldn’t believe there was an animal that was bad by default. I didn’t believe it. “Why are they there?”

“The farmer sends the pelts out to make fur coats.”

“He kills them?” I shrieked.

My mother chuckled. “Where do you think fur comes from, Jane?”

I had never considered it before. I huddled down in the backseat with my hands over my head.

To get the down in the jacket, in the pillow, geese were beheaded.

To get the leather for our shoes, cows’ throats were slit.

Pigs were used to make garbage bags.

Cows were used to make crayons.

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