I disturbed a nest of baby rabbits under the catmint as I hacked back the dead sprawl. Something moved under my loppers. Five nestlings, each the size of a small teacup, curled into each other, wrapped in a tender blanket of down shed from their mother. Eyes closed, mewling and wriggling in my grasp. I wanted to protect them, and I wanted to kill them.
Baby rabbits, or kits, as they are known, have no smell, apparently so predators don’t detect them. Now they would smell of me. Their mother would reject them because of their new sweaty-hand-and-dank-garden-glove scent. I felt for this sweet brood, but turned instead to my garden. This is where I coaxed blue campanula to come back after winter, and tried to keep order among the reckless bee balm and catmint. A mother rabbit, a doe, can birth six litters in a season. I didn’t want them ransacking my garden, nibbling my asters to stubs, disrupting the line of creeping phlox by chewing them ragged. Nor did I want my dog to find sport in them, playing a macabre game with a score tallied in limp bodies. I gave the brood to our neighbors, who passed them along the block to Illinois Bob, an obsessive collector of rodents and other beasts. Motherless, those thumpers died, but at least not on my watch.
Later, in summer, I found a lone kit, wet from my hound’s mouth, lying damaged on the lawn, roaring silently. His mouth stretched wide, tiny see-through teeth vibrating. He made me think of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the image that stares out from dorm room posters and kitchen towels and mouse pads, reminding us that human distress can spiral out for eternity. It’s called “Skrik” in Danish, capturing the moment in a life when raw pain prevails.
I filmed my tiny screamer on my phone, thinking it might be useful for some later project, as a record of anguish. I filmed as he ran out of shriek, until his mouth barely quivered ajar. He no longer had strength to raise his head from the grass. His crying slowly lost its desperation, trailing into a soundless mew. Did he cry for his mother? Was she hiding under the wild mess of golden rod and dock by the garage, or watching from a burrow beneath the deck? I knelt beside him, a surrogate parent offering comfort by being present. As if a parent’s presence alone could be enough. A parent of any species. In this case, a human mother with a camera, recording his torment. Watching him, I felt both invested in his suffering and detached. Sympathy and cool voyeurism coiled together. I shivered.
Read this breathtaking essay by Toni Nealie, an interview with debut novelist Scott Cheshire, and more in our new issue, here.