SmokeLong Quarterly

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Story by Natalie Lund (Read author interview) March 29, 2015

art by Karen Prosen

The rabbit bites the chard leaves down to the ribs, nibbles the bean plants bare. I am awake early, standing with my coffee over the sink when I first see her—the tawny fur, the ears shifting like satellites, the eye a black agate.

You keep your air rifle loaded and propped beside the back door for coyotes. I consider its stock and barrel and then her again, that eye just visible.

She runs when I shoot the air.

The noise wakes you and you come into the kitchen, yawning. You wrap your arms around my waist and rub your whiskers against the back of my neck. I love how your stubble makes my skin raw, but I shrug you off like a jacket. I point to the dishes next to the sink, at the BBQ sauce hardened like candy.

Dishes never bother me until they do, until some invisible line has been crossed. Then I point and pick fights, and you are supposed to say this is the end. That’s how it goes, this script we’ve been given.

I work gassing lab mice and collecting their organs in tiny plastic dishes. I’ve learned the hard way that too much CO2 too fast makes their eyeballs pop out. Too loose a grip and they end up on the floor, limping in miserable circles. Too little time in the bag and their hearts still beat when I crack their breastbones.

I’m not to be trusted with death.

You are though.

It’s your hands. They’re calloused, gun leather, but they speak of the human flesh beneath. Puffs of it at the finger joints. Cushions along the palm. They were made for cupping jawbones, for kindness that is hard and soft.

If I had bitten a child—clamped my teeth and not let go—or if I were too old to eat my kibble, like so many of your patients, I’d want it to be you who held my head down, who plunged the blue liquid into my foreleg, who watched my last breaths, the urine puddling on the concrete, the light dimming in my eyes, the stiffening.

And yet, I comb through your search history, I dump the laundry basket on your side of the bed, I fan the bills on the table like a poker hand I’ve won. You sniff the bait, hackles up, and still manage to turn away.

When I was little and my parents came home from the vet without our dog Cookie, they gave me a stuffed Velveteen Rabbit. I listened to the story before bed, rubbing the silky lining of the bunny’s ears against my cheek. Back then, I believed my stuffed animal could be real, that there weren’t endings—only transformations, that Cookie was put to sleep.

You use the right words: euthanize, Pentobarbital, death. It’s your kindness again.

I see the rabbit at dusk this time. I know it’s her. There’s something about that eye, its glistening emptiness. She is cautious, nose twitching, body taut like a cord runs from her ears, along the small hump of her spine, to her spring-loaded hind legs.

I call you to the window and point.

You say you’ll erect chicken wire and spread crushed oyster shells. You’ll walk the dogs around the garden perimeter, building their scent like a wall. You’ll fix it. My chest aches at this, and I want to take your hand, pry it open like one of those shells, and suck out the meat.

But I need her gone before there’s no butter lettuce, no spinach, no cabbage to speak of. I ask you to clean and load the shotgun, so I’m ready.

I wake in darkness and sit on the patio in your flannel, shotgun across my thighs.

When the sky is like abalone, you bring me coffee. We don’t talk, but we both know what’s coming.

She emerges from the bushes and pauses, aware of us. It’s the first time she’s watched me and that eye reflects everything: the fear and the shame.

I shove the gun into your hands, saying it’s because you’re the better shot.

You look at me once, sadness there, before lifting it to your shoulder, sighting down the barrel, and firing. It’s clean, this motion, and gentle. Your ritual for endings too tender to bear.

About the Author

Natalie Lund is a third-year student in Purdue’s MFA program and the fiction editor of Sycamore Review. Before attending Purdue, she taught English and Texas history at a charter school in Houston. She was named as a finalist in Glimmer Train three times and has placed in the National Society of Arts and Letters competition twice. Her work has recently appeared in Literary Orphans. Follow her on Twitter @nmlund.

About the Artist

Karen Prosen has been taking photographs for about five years now, and although she has newly branched out into various other modalities, photography will always be her most favorite and most natural way of sharing with the world. She believes photography is like being a mirror for someone, and saying, “Did you know that this is the way I see you?” It’s why she loves portraiture—the ability to turn beauty in all its forms around to show the beheld. To Karen, photography is a gift.

This story appeared in Issue Forty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Forty-Seven

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