out now from Starcherone Books
All the children of Mrs. Rabbit had been healthy and happy, their rooms tidy, clothing and toys arranged in their places, sheets pulled snug, waiting to hold their bodies in the night, pillows where they would rest their heads when the clock sang time for bed. Ball, comb, sock, doll, slipper, hat, lamp: life had distributed the children a loving list of desires and objects that corresponded precisely, like the words and pictures in grammar books. While they danced or giggled or built with blocks in the house, Mother tended the garden, just in earshot of her little ones. She could stand from her work and see a few of them through the window. The light of the long summer evening reminded her of the peaches waiting in the kitchen.
When the bombs fell, mother ran for her children. Neighboring houses, crackling trees, the flat horizon itself became a vortex of slamming doors. She strained to focus on the tunnel of light and air between herself and her children, her feet dragging, nightmarish, through a blizzard of dirt and debris, her children lost in the clamor as her home disappeared.
The Rabbit children found each other in the morning when calm, clear air finally curled down from above and met the haggard earth, lacing through the smoke and ash, the zeppelin raid long concluded. They regarded each other and the world apprehensively, covered with filth, uncertain if they had truly lived. Eldest Brother and Eldest Sister kept their eyes down, not wishing to see too much, dreading what could not be forgotten, while the littler bunnies limped and stumbled dumbly into the wrecked yard, expecting their confusion to lessen in the hours.
Eldest Sister stopped and turned her eyes up. “The sky is gone,” she said.
“I can’t look,” said her Brother, his body hunched and hunching.
All through the midday, the rabbits searched, at times listless, at times desperate, for their mother, Mrs. Rabbit, Mama. They could not discern the original confines of the family garden. Fence-posts and smoldering beams lay scattered, the whole known planet unsettled like a puzzle squeezed apart on a table. They called to her, but their voices disappeared in the hot, ghost-filled air. They called to her, and that lifeless air, life inside out, that air clung to their lips and lungs, left cancers to creep along their drying voices. Soon, mama was the only thing, the only thing they had to say to the world. They fought the sick air with it.
On the second day, the sun, tireless, thrilled as ever, pushed them to sleep, and when they woke in the purpled evening, there seemed little reason to keep calling. Instead, they did what they had learned to do if lost at the market or in the hills: stay put.
Days passed. The weather was good. They moved things about, pried up sheets of wallboard, cleared mounds of roof tiles. Altogether too many things were piled everywhere, as if a neighboring village, chewed and torn, had been dropped onto the wreckage of their own. Where had it all come from? They didn’t say to each other what they were doing, wouldn’t say what they expected to find. The sifting was private, unspeakable, and automatic.
Eldest Brother said to himself, “My arms aren’t my arms.” There they were in the garden, maybe, but it wasn’t like working in the garden. They moved about without chores or homework, no games to play and no rules. Everything was gone, but what was left was somehow real. They had no name for this sudden confrontation with pieces, parts, solids that were also absences. Reality was the opposite of itself, and they had no words for it.
Alone, the eldest rabbit stared, a full minute, at a wooden door—blown from who knows where, its hinges clutched the earth. Here, beneath such a door, he thought, must be something: a secret room, a tunnel, no, a secret house underground, the hidden fortress their mother kept, a mirror world, a kingdom. He thought he could feel the magic in the air, swirling and tickling with cosmic carbonation, and, as he knelt, the poor bunny thought he saw a brief spark of starlight deep within the crystal handle of the door.
He concentrated, tried to ascertain the faith inside, the special core of a child that sends one off to magical places, the part that gets one chosen for special missions in other worlds. He grasped the crystal knob in his fingers and lifted the door up, open, careful to pull it just so, as if it really was a door, and not just a piece of wood on the ground.
They were running out of edible food. Several bunnies ventured down the cluttered road, toward the neighbors’, where they saw lush standing trees around the house of the young salmon couple. As they neared, they could see that the house still stood, nearly untouched, though something in the back yard smoldered darkly. The bunnies rushed around the bend but stopped, dryly retching, for there on the road lay the two Salmons, Mr. and Mrs. They must have been running for home to protect their eggs. Their fish legs and torsos were in a mound, as if something had bitten them both in half, all in one go, from above. Insects busied themselves in the wounds, fell in love, madly danced like flying goats.
The bunnies ran back home, straight to their big sister, who scooped their little bodies up and hummed their favorite bedtime song. She could guess what they’d seen.
By that evening the bunnies had consumed all the food leftover from the house. Eldest Brother said they must ration for the littlest ones whatever was left in the jumbled garden. The two eldest children gathered handfuls of aborted carrots and hole-pocked half-charred cabbage leaves and hid them in the shadow of a faceless wall, each pile representing a day. Then the piles were gone.
At the end of a warm, beautiful day, the eldest of the bunnies, forgetting doors in the ground and faraway places, succumbed to the disaster of his greater intelligence and life experience. First, his comprehension of space and geography (recent lessons at school with colorful charts and papier-mâché landscapes) permitted him to understand the severity of their predicament, the impossibility of, say, reaching the sea or crossing the mountains. Lessons in history had opened the world to him, instructed him in the pains of war and the overwhelming force of their mysterious attacker. The other factors were his size, which made his hunger quick and ferocious, and, bravely, that he had refused to eat, even on the first day, even on the fourth.
Blanks followed timeless blanks. Bunnies are hungry, delicate beasts. There was nothing to do.
For lack of food or hope, then, the eldest bunny’s body aggravated and numbed itself, divided and fruited the branches of his mind. He looked at his siblings with vacant eyes, all envy drowned in breaths of habit, watched them lingering in what was once their front yard, near the lane that once went everywhere, all the places in town and out, those nameless and named, and by the tree where they used to line up for school and mother would survey them, see that they had their lunches and books, those tired old books wrapped in pretty paper. Eldest saw them become white blurs among blurring debris, smears beneath a fog of gristle and gray, while deep inside, so much so that it was outside of him again, in the furthest open seas of the spilled galaxy, he wandered into that small place where breath cannot follow.
Their mother arrived from the air to rescue them. She said nothing, but her jaw worked like a vise to hold her heart inside as she saw them, went to them, gathered them. They were only capable of the slightest of grips about her shoulders. Bodies filthy and fur in mats, just the pink in their ears reflected the pumping joy in their hearts. They wanted to say something about those days, and about their brother, but could not. Could not say a thing. They had left him where they had found him, afraid to touch him, afraid to cover him over.
The children were raised toward the clouds, two at a time, up a sinewy rope hung from the winged ship that had brought their mother. On the ground, she loaded sacks full of useful things from the ruins of her home. She hoisted the sacks up after the children, into the open air for nearly half a mile, into the clouds, where long white-furred arms worked the other end, whirling hand over hand to run the system of ropes and pulleys.
The second eldest, now the eldest living bunny child, gazed up at the ship. It looked to her like a tremendous spider in the sky, the god of spiders. Its many wooden arms extended in all directions, some of them forever, branching spontaneously into green leafy wings, vine-wrapped spinnakers, chutes and broad moonrakers full of wind, all glowing caterpillar greens in the high warm sun.
She had never seen such a thing.
Life would continue as a dream.
Mr Fin busied himself in the garage all morning, cleaning and tinkering with his old boat, The Swan. For a break he fixed himself a grilled cheese and sat to work on his Harbor at Sunset jigsaw. Sam had left the puzzle for him yesterday on his way to the dock, and already the four corners stretched arms to form a loving rectangular window. Fin pecked his greasy fingers through the pile of marine-themed blotches and pale green backs, looking for the last edges.
The sun appeared in the late afternoon, so he dragged the boat out into the drive.
Nothing on it quite sparkled, but it gave off some shattered salt color from the outer spectrum, something perhaps only birds could really see, here at the prow, or along the ridges of oak. Old panels of wood around the tiny cabin had absorbed so much seawater, so many unseen microbes, so that every part of the Swan, an unused, rigid creature, a trophy, nonetheless teemed with half-lives and sea-ghosts.
Fin gave the fiberglass sides a once-over with the hose, dried it with several old cloth diapers, circles and petting. He stood back and adored the hull, rudder, keel, and cabin revealed in the sun, its form a compromise between a dolphin’s back and the needs of a human rider working the wind. With the mast and boom stowed on racks in the garage, the un-winged boat lacked its true majesty, so had a look of vulnerability, a wounded or hibernating thing. He imagined the trailer disappearing and just the boat hovering there, a light, clear water filling the neighborhood—the Swan lounging in a magic element that overwhelmed the land, let everything float. He would moor it to the house with the garden hose.
The rain moved in quickly, so Mr Fin rushed to get the boat back under cover, tipping his body against it, huffing and puffing, anxious to keep it dry. The sun glared sharp from the west so that looking away from it, one saw plumes of gold brightening the wet trees and bejeweled windows catching the rainfall, and looking toward the sun, one saw a flat, black silhouette of knobby hills and bone-like buildings together in the earth.
The boat restored to the garage, Mr Fin hooked himself over the prow like a castaway clinging to the last timber, catching his breath. Idly, he jabbed behind him for the garage door button. It squealed shut while his old head swam with random memories, images cast up by the rush of blood. He let all but one go, because here he clung to his ship just as the young rabbits would have done, and he had not remembered them for some time.
Here they were, tumbling into the airship, saved at last, lives wiped clean to make room for adventures. He wanted to remember the stories, how he had told them the first time, the third time, the hundredth. He wandered, soaked in the dreary dream, to his study, where thoughts came so easily, and lowered himself into his wingback chair, waiting. His hand slipped over to the side table, fiddling for his reading glasses—he could write it all down—but he gave up, for his unadjusted eyes left him submerged in a dark envelope.
The rabbits would climb aboard, and their adventures would begin with the heroic Mr Crane and his flying ship. With each story, the world grew and changed, at first toward excitement, and then toward sleep. So many nights, bleary with exhaustion, Fin fell into this same chair after David had fallen to sleep at last, and Hart Crane, the rabbit, the poet, lingered there in his mind, sitting with one leg crossed over the other, fingers tapping the arm of the chair, well-kempt if a bit sweaty, impatient, eager to smoke. It would be fair to say that Fin knew little about him: he loved his name and the romance of his New York mysticism, and he was troubled by him, even then, his fall into the symbolist sea—his voice echoing the frustration of a hidden life, his crisis of verse summoning the azure priest of the Isle Ptyx, Stéphane: they both haunted Fin’s invention. Hart, all suspenders and that weird mix of the rural and the urban, candy factory charm and Atlantean eyes: Hart Crane, one of many Orphic tragedies, was David’s long-eared hero.
But now the lives of the bunnies and of their poor mother had shifted around the body of the eldest. He had remembered it wrong. The eldest bunny had not died, not originally. David would not have allowed that. No, Mr Crane saved them all in time. Hart Crane swooped down. Mr Fin could not see past this flaw in his memory, and couldn’t rid himself of it either: Hart was too late, and Fin had no idea how he had got there, what would have delayed him, why he’d saved them in the first place. He’d plucked Hart Crane from poetry, made him appear to David as the perfect hero, quiet and indestructible, with no back story.
Mr Fin imagined himself and Mr Crane now, at sea, beneath a bright dome of pink and shell gray atmosphere. No sun or moon, but lit by a latent pearlescence in the air. Mr Fin narrated to himself: Hart Crane would stand and look out over the water from the deck of the toiling ship, and at the same time in the room, at the window, thrusting the curtains aside. Hart would agonize, push his rabbit ears back and pull them down in distress. He wanted to rage forth some poem, but found his mouth dry and empty. I wanted to help him, but I knew my words would hurt him instead: words, to him, were all curses and traps: one had to trick them into softness: an elegant language would be one that barely escaped the mouth, one as inscrutable as the mind.
The rabbit put his palm to his forehead as he stood by the rail, waiting for something to emerge. Mr Fin could see he was hurt. A thin line of blood trickled from his nose into his fur, and his left eye had swollen shut with lavender black skin. The rabbit snorted and spat blood at the sea, watching as the clot wriggled and flew off with the wind.
Mr Fin worried about the blood, the bruise. He tried to speak, “Are you alright,” he would have said, but the rabbit stopped him, pleading the shush sign with his rabbit finger over his rabbit lips.
Hart sat down, stretched and twined his legs as in those pictures he’d admired of Mr Joyce.
Fin could see it in the rabbit’s wounded eyes: this was not before, this was after, after the mistake. Hart already knew: Brother Rabbit had died. He had held the body himself, lowered it to the deck of his own ship.
The story had changed because of him.
Mr Fin wanted to ask questions, wanted to tell the story of Hart Crane the way it was meant to be: the adventurous rabbit. They would both see the story unfold in the room around them, and Fin would say, Hart readied his spear in one hand while the ship practically lunged through the air toward the attacking zeppelin!
He thought: that’s all you need, a new story.
Hart stared at the ceiling or the stars. “All this foam: a mechanical diapason….” When Crane spoke the words were not slurred or stuttered, but hard won in some internal, mental conflict. “…Antiphonal in azure, the white torment of our sail…
“drawn from the abolished, silent nothing on the earth’s table
“Where white choiring wings ascend, emit scintillating plumes
“to spend the suns about us, but too late.”
He held his head like an orb on his hand’s tripod.
The ocean, if it was there at all, was flat, despite the wind curling into the curtains. Fin could see their position on a map of the Sound, an island or two in view, but they were becalmed in the dark, a situation he adored, to a point. One gives up to the weather.
Eyes shut, Hart tried to compose in his head. “the… the… and….” He was all out of words. He pulled a book from the table, spread it open in his lap, scanned it affectionately. Mr Fin could see: it was David’s book. Where had he got that from?
“the architecture… the entire world…” the rabbit said, naming the pages’ constellations.
Mr Fin wanted to tell the story of the moment, to say, Hart Crane and Mr Fin talked about old times. Hart remembered things that Fin could not, and when Fin told the old stories, Hart blushed and changed the subject. And where were the bunnies now? They would smile. And where was the ship? In the garage, of course.
“The Peter Rabbit story?” asked Fin, his voice coming from elsewhere. It had been a favorite thing of David’s to hear one pretend rabbit tell the story of another—the world of rabbits expanded to include them all.
Crane ignored him. He tore out a page in one smooth pull, unzipping it from its brittle glue. Mr Fin gave a start. “That’s—.”
Holding it in the light, the rabbit admired the fleshy paper, its two texts blending into lines and rectangles.
Hart shook his head: stop.
With the tips of his fingers, the rabbit pinched at the text and broke a number of pieces from it, no bigger than words, short words, medium words, and slipped them into his mouth, like bits of lettuce. He chewed them up thoughtfully. Now the page had holes where the words had been—a slug-sucked leaf.
“The boy,” he said.
“No, no, it’s not your fault.”
Crane plucked more words and ate until the page was half gone. He pulled out another page and bit right into it, a whole paragraph at once, nodding to himself, as if deciding it was delicious after all. “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you,” said the words.
“That was David’s. It’s my—.”
“Sails that cross some page of figures to be filed away,” he concentrated as he chewed at more words, swallowed, ate another whole page. “…reabsorbed, not gone,” he said. “No more will they triumph over strength, the desire to sacrifice. Who will carry? Hands join toward the one who cannot be touched.” He chewed through the alphabet as if it were gum paper, sugar ink, until he was able to say, “The boy might wake up—as I have.”
Mr Fin nodded eagerly, but even as he wished to return the story to its original form, he could feel his memory of it failing, seizing up like a chain contorted among its gears. He felt his cheek pressed into the upholstery of his chair. He said to Crane, “Bring him back. Don’t give up. You’re the hero.”
The boat stopped being a boat. The sea was not the sea. He was sleeping. The room was itself again. No sea and no sky, but a wall of books within which Crane himself was still woven, a ghost among the leaves.
What else, thought Fin, were our bedtime stories but hauntings of what I’ve read? What is precious about the decline of the mind, he thought, is that one is erased in reverse. Lost things return: David curled perfectly under his arm, listening to their bedtime stories. He felt him in the chair with him, sleeping warmly, leaning back toward dream.
Now Hart Crane, the idea of Hart Crane, was eager to be on its way. “It is I who have helped you since. I was eaten by the world.” He appeared at the window. He pulled the curtains open once more. The sea returned, crowding the window as if it were its only mouth.
“All the children of Mrs. Rabbit,” Fin said, softly to settle the phantom David to sleep in his arms, “were healthy and happy.”
Hart slipped one leg over the sill, then the other. His body released stray lines, almost a stanza, onto the frail and bustling wind. Some were lost while others catapulted into the room and roiled in the air, not as sound, but printed on the papery side of existence: outspread motionless
coasts the wind unwearyingly forgetfulness rain at night
or an old house in a forest a child
white white as a blasted tree
Hart Crane looked once more at Fin from the other side of the window, his good eye piercing, his other sunken into bruise. A beard of blood surrounded his mouth, so his brief smile was grotesque. He said, “If anyone could have saved him... That’s all I have left.” The sea winds whipped at his body.
Mr Fin woke at once, bones locked in his chair.
He tried to blink the sleep away. Sunspots hovered where the rabbit’s eyes had been.
The door. Someone was at the door.
A neighbor, bringing him several obscene squash and a small basket of pears from her garden. He had forgotten her name.
When she had gone—she went awkwardly—and he had sat back in his chair, not quite remembering how he’d got from the door to the chair, he couldn’t picture the pears, whether they were red or green or something else, but he could remember the tight weave of the basket handle in his hand.
But what was her name?
He kept notes in a small composition book by the bedside. He fetched it, flipped through it. Sometimes ridiculous things. He tossed the book aside and slumped into his chair. Removing his glasses, Fin gave his nose an extended pinch, reciting lists of names, an alphabet of names, characters in books, but nothing attached to the woman with the basket of pears and an awkward departure.
Soon he’d forgot her face, if she had worn a hat or no hat, a skirt or a dress or slacks, floral print or stripes or solid colors—and why had she come, what business did she have with him, were they friendly, had he been rude?
He set the basket on the kitchen counter and laid the squash in a chaste line beside it. He ignored the dishes in the sink. He ignored the sticky notes on the microwave, on the coffee machine. He studied the pears, but they didn’t contain her name. They contained details all their own: their red skin the finest felted wool, the way their stems had broken. He sliced one onto a plate. The pulp glistened. For a moment, he saw everything there was to see of the carved pear’s white and moonish face. At the end of that moment, he was relieved.
From her porch, she could see one of his kitchen windows, a bit of his porch, and two upstairs windows. The house, to her, had a gloom to it, and she worried sometimes about her intentions, her morbid curiosities. She was not young, but she was of a different oldness than—whatever his name was, ‘Fin.’
He had moved in not too long ago, and carried himself around with a bit of grace, even an imperiousness that made various lapses and errors seem the mark of a man with too much on his mind for the material world, for other people. That’s what had appealed to her. She recognized a fellow misanthropic humanist. She had found him affable downtown, even walked with him a few blocks to make small talk. He walked, sat by the water: noble endeavors, to her mind.
She considered ways to invite herself over. Eventually, it was probably the afternoon, must have been early summer, late spring, she crossed the street, mounted the porch, and knocked, freshly baked bread swaddled in her arms as offering.
She waited, knocked again loudly. He had to be home. She had watched him return from his walk just ten minutes before. She straightened her cardigan over her top, tugging it closed. Another minute and she turned on herself. Poor man had hid from her and she had knocked twice, so desperate, so crude. What did she want with him anyway? She moved back a few paces from the porch, surveyed the façade. The recent rain drifted up from the house, the sun’s heatless glare taking its vengeance by ricocheting everywhere.
“It’s just as well,” she said to herself.
She posed the bread on a chair by the door. “Crusty little orphan,” she thought. “How silly is that?” Tucking it back under her arm, she rushed home, grabbed a pad of paper and a pen: “Hello! Came by today—had an extra loaf of bread, thought you might like. I’ll try to bring it by later or feel free to stop by—I’d love to chat. Have a good day! —Viv —blue house (two down, across).” She scampered back up the street with the note pinched in her hand, tingling with the cocktail of mischief and flirtation—both wrong. She slowed herself, sobered her expression, tugged her skirt straight—it was getting warm—and climbed the porch steps like she meant business. She kept an eye on the neighbor’s house, to see who might be watching, as she cracked the screen door, slipped the note in, and pressed it shut again.
Her heart jolted.
Held in his wicker chair, he let a paperback limp up and down at the end of his arm.
“Oh hi! Oh good!” She chirped, grinning as she gathered herself. She cleared her throat, “Hi,” she needed to orient things, “Mr-?”
“-Fin. Hello to you.” He set his book down neatly on top of another, but remained otherwise unmoving. “I recognize you.” He waited. “Do you work downtown somewhere?”
She wanted to call him Huckleberry. She resisted. “Yes, we’ve… met, at the tea shop,” still catching her breath, “but I don’t work down there. May I sit?”
He nodded to the chair opposite.
She clapped her hand to her chest, “Bit of a jolt!” Snapping the note from the door, she sat heavily, waving the note in her hand, “I didn’t see you…” Obviously. “I brought you some bread!”
“I see.” He smiled.
He explained. He had been out back, of course, “checking on my weeds,” and had not heard a thing. He’d made that up, but it sounded convincing.
She wiped the sweat from her neck, but tried to keep her poise, not ready to relax. “I’m no baker, mind you. I’ve got one of those, dump-in-the-stuff and hit the button bread-makers, you know?”
Mr Fin nodded and kept nodding; he wasn’t even trying to think of something to say.
She could tell she would need to press. “How is your house doing?”
“Fits me well,” Fin stopped nodding, relieved. “Still lots of boxes to deal with. Just as well, I suppose.”
“Life gets simpler, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes it does,” there went the head, but he sent two fingers up to still it in what he hoped was a casual way.
“And you moved from where?” She worked at a hairpin, fussed it out and fussed it back in again.
“Not far. I’d been in a little place, by myself, for some years. But there was still too much to deal with on my own. It was on a bit of land. Too many chores—too many chickens, really.”
“Well, you’ve been in the area longer than I have, then. But we both came here to slow down, hm?”
Mr Fin nodded and fidgeted a bit. One hand impulsively reached for his book, as if he was ready to go back to reading. He noticed and squelched the movement, instead leaning as if to get up, “Can I get you some water? Or something?”
“Oh, please don’t trouble yourself. I wanted to say hi, not be a bother.”
Fin sank back into his chair.
She struck the pose of one ready to be asked a question. It was his turn. She could tell him about her house, about her retirement, anything. He was very nearly immobile. He might be looking right through her. She couldn’t catch his eye. She gave in.
“What are you reading?”
“Hemingway,” he said, snapping up the book. He flashed her the cover, then studied it himself.
“Looks like it might fall apart before you’re done. I guess you’ve read that one before?”
“Yes,” he mused, “Probably a bit much, I’m afraid. But long ago. I was stuck in the high school circuit for a while.”
“You taught English?”
Fin gazed down to the porch boards as if into a chasm. He spoke with solemnity, as if the past was way down there, beyond summoning. “Yes… to people who, by and large, would never touch a work of imagination for the rest of their lives.”
She laughed, hoping that was the right chord to strike, “Someone’s got to do it, I guess!”
Fin didn’t laugh. He turned The Old Man and the Sea over in his hands.
She tried again. “So… have you been able to keep busy, in glorious retirement? I see you sometimes, sitting down by the water.”
He pulled himself back to look at her. But she was already looking at him, and by the look in his eyes she could tell he had not really heard her.
Oh, I’ve wandered into something, she thought.
“Park benches,” he said.
How nice. She waited, readying some excuse to hustle home.
“Park benches help me think.” His eyes were alive again. “I’ve always loved the benches with the iron legs, bolted into the concrete. Some parks will have tables or benches chained in place, and that, to me, seems to invite chaos. The benches keep me walking, though. I have a pretty regular route, along the shore, past the market, and then back. Easy. Keeps me going. I can read in the daylight.”
She gave a big punctuating smile, but instead of leaving, she said, “I love to read. I could read everyday, sometimes, sometimes, I feel like I could just curl up with a book in my hammock and it would be like disappearing. Something about reading outside has always sent me. You know? I just love that feeling.”
“That’s a fabulous book,” she said, pointing to The Old Man and the Sea.
Mr Fin squeezed it in his hands. “His only good one.” He felt threads from the chasmic past rise up through the book, remembering not just Santiago but all the young ears, the barely literate minds, waiting to be amazed or, preferably, amused. “Probably his worst. It was unlike him: full of, you know, literature.”
“You know,” Mr Fin shifted his posture, wetted his lips in thought, “after he wrote it, Hemingway almost killed himself on safari, crashed a plane.” Now the porch had become his lectern, and he crossed one leg over the other. “He was a broken man, after this book,” he wagged it in the air, “a pitiful fish tied to a boat… he was a parody of himself.”
She knew a thing or two about Hemingway. “Really?”
“Well,” Mr Fin shifted back in his seat, slipped off his reading glasses. “One could argue. I’m just…” He thumbed the book and said in a low voice, forgetting his point. “I don’t know about Hemingway.” Mr Fin padded his pockets like a man looking for his pipe. “I don’t really care a whit for the man.”
“I guess neither did Hemingway.”
“I don’t know.” Distracted, sad to accept that he had no pipe, Fin settled down cradling his hands, one in the other, then the other in the one. Where have I put my glasses, he thought.
“A mess, though.” Vivian could picture the blood, imagine the clean-up. She stood up, not exactly to leave, but to feel alive again, to feel the light and the shade.
“You know,” Fin’s face lit up and his knees gave a bounce. Something had popped into his head that enticed him, so that he spoke, at first, as if she wasn’t there. “There’s the old man and the sea; there’s also the old man of the sea, grandfather to Achilles, a sort of water deity or monster or something. This old man—he’s in Homer—wanders the beaches, and if one captured him, he would change form until his captor let go—he might become fire or water, or a serpent, or a lion, or a whale, or a horse.”
“Is that part of The Iliad?” She sat again, now at the top of the porch steps, leaning against the white wooden post, calves in the sun.
“No. No, I don’t think so. He’s mentioned in The Odyssey. One of the other…guys, not Odysseus. Who was it who told the story to Odysseus’s son? Maybe it was Menelaus—I think it was—who told Telemachus that, if you hold onto the old man until he weakens,” Fin put out his fist, strangling the air, “then he’ll return to his old-man form, and then he will answer any question you ask.” He rested his hands back on his knees, enjoying the story wandering in his head. “Menelaus had done so, and asked about the other ships leaving Troy, about his comrades, forced the old man to say where they’d gone.” Mr Fin scraped his shoe against the floor, as if smearing the fluorescent guts of a lightning bug into the chasm. “That’s how he found out that Odysseus was still alive, living with Calypso.”
“Anything to do with Hemingway?”
“Hm? I can’t imagine so. But maybe they are connected, regardless.” He waggled the book in front of him. “How can they not be—both odysseys, right? And in a few thousand years, they will seem almost contemporaries, teasing one another. Who would give a god, or an Odysseus, the fate of a Santiago?” Fin set the book down, thumbs and fingers playing anxious games with tiny invisible strings. “I do wonder, I wonder how the old man of the sea was able to transform, and how he was able to answer questions,” his eyes dimmed as he smiled to himself, mentally thumbing pages of books he wasn’t holding.
She found his performance a little charming. “You said he was a god,” she crossed her arms and let her head tip back, “right, professor?”
Mr Fin could see the rococo shores as from a ship, twisted sweet almond trees falling over green rocks and yellow sage. He could hear, in the ancient air, the murmuring voices of the gods who haunted men’s minds. “I think… I think it was because he used to be an island. A small island, visible from Athens as a little hill in the water, worth sailing out to for a picnic, nothing more, blue scrub, brown rocks, barely any trees.” Fin stared off into the Aegean, shaping the island with his hands. “One year, it dissolved into the sea, and many years later, generations later, the island was replaced by a man. He appeared in the evening—some children saw him striding in to shore, not a ship in sight, not a mark on him, naked, no beard, like one of the old heroes. In the years before its return, the man—the island—had moved with all the currents of the world, snaring little wisps of itself on the sharp edges of the continents. In this way, its body had been strewn everywhere, like cobwebs, or a- a- thin net of consciousness, an immortal dust, clumps of it collecting and growing. It grew into port cities, or filtered into deep caves in cliff-sides, and it even entered the bodies of animals and became colonies of seals, gulls, orca whales, and tribes of men. The old man who eventually returned, striding in from the waters of the Aegean still felt the presence of his body distributed around the world. His nerves wrapped all but numbly into the fabric of the world.”
She said quietly, in case it sounded stupid, “I wonder what that’s meant to explain.”
Fin went on. “You have to wonder what he—it—really is, was, a man or an island—not to make a cliché, but in the sense of his desires—or his allegiances. That is, we always have to wonder about the being that must be forced to speak, who won’t give away knowledge for his own reasons, I mean for the sake of his values, sense of the good. Why must one be chained, exhausted—tortured, really—to answer simple questions? Why wouldn’t he speak willingly? A man would. Does knowledge of a certain kind remove one’s humanity?”
On more familiar footing, she said, “If he’s got this amazing knowledge,” she couldn’t tell if Fin was listening, “and he’s vulnerable, then it makes sense he’d be scared.”
Fin could have placed his hand along the edges of the imaginary lectern as he felt his resolution emerge. “How many of us are really made of that same matter, descended from those infected tribes of men, like the caves and harbors that are the old man’s ears, such that within us are threads of the inhuman, bands of that knowledge, depths of unwillingness to cooperate with our humanness, possessed of that immortal changeability? So he runs, escapes, hides.” For a brief moment, Fin was all chasm, all a work of the past, in the past, in that awkwardly ecstatic way that left him anxious when it had gone. It wasn’t always that he couldn’t remember things, it was that he couldn’t always feel the difference between remembering something and being something.
He watched the woman quiet on the steps. She folded a piece of paper between her fingers until it wouldn’t fold anymore. She seemed content. She unfolded it to admire the grid of creases.
“What part are you on?” She nodded at the book in Fin’s hand.
“Oh?” He looked. “Hemingway? About the middle I suppose. I—”
“Does he have the marlin yet?”
“Well.” He fiddled with the book, looking it over. “I’m not going in order, exactly. My eyes don’t allow long stints these days. So I check in with the book here and there and the rest I work up from memory, however I like.”
“Oh I see. You and Hemingway, eh?”
“He’s not much help, but there are lovely pieces here.”
“Well,” her tone signaled the end of the visit, “do you want a loaf of bread?” She rose from her seat and shook her long skirt loose.
“I’ll trade you,” Mr Fin said, brightening. He liked trades. “I’ve got garlic ready to dry… and I should have basil all summer, if you like.”
She smiled, or she should have, or said something. Instead, she thought it over a moment too long.
“I’m sorry,” Mr Fin broke in, “I didn’t even catch your name.” He tried to laugh a bit at his lack of manners.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his tone stripped of pleasantries. “I’m sorry. It’s—”
Viv said, “No, don’t worry about it. We’re all getting older.”
“No. I’m very sorry.” Mr Fin screwed up his face a bit and hazarded, “it’s just… we’ve met before, haven’t we? And I’ve just forgotten everything? Have I just sat here like you were someone else? It happens. I’m in the early stages, I think, but it’s enough to put you on edge, you know, makes it hard to pick up new names, so, I tend to— Maybe it’s still the new place. Not enough time. Routine helps. But I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be an ass. I—” He cut off. He didn’t have anything else to say.
Viv took this in for a moment, letting her disappointment fade as a sense of responsibility, even vigilance, irrational duty, laid a plan out before her. “Well, hey. Why don’t I bring the bread by tomorrow? Or something. I’m not sure the bread’s all that good. And I’ll take a head of garlic in trade. I love garlic. Okay? And you’ll tell me more about your book.”
Viv looked back before turning down the sidewalk. The sun warmed, merely, and everything that was still damp would stay damp, no longer reflective, but bright velvet grass, and the willow like a chandelier, and Mrs. Owen’s hydrangeas with fistfuls of color. In a newly painted world, Mr Fin, shadowed on his porch, looked like a dusty swatch of canvas, a smelly old book, she thought. She waved at him. She liked old books.
“I’ve got it now,” he called. “Viv. Like Vivian.”
Pairs of bunnies rose shivering into the sky until they could scramble onto the deck of the ship, where they rushed to join their mob of sibling fur. Wide eyed, they would risk scans of the world below them, the florets of darkening trees through the ship-rails, or the lightning-carved jaw of the mountains, and the sky itself, a sea instead of a ceiling, going everywhere, and the only sign of the zeppelins’ destructiveness was the invisible ash and smoke clinging to their fur. Soon, they were all there together, except for mother and brother.
The tall rabbit at the rope and pulley system gazed down at the planet, letting the ropes hang slack, waiting. He turned toward the bunnies, who, as one, flinched back from him. His shape unnerved them. His body was somehow so wrong that his clothes bunched and sagged where they should not. As he came toward them, his legs moved as if he were just the back end of some larger creature. Was he even a rabbit?
He kneeled before them and bent in, his good eye and his missing eye taking them in. He counted them, a finger bouncing from head to head. As he finished, they could see his chin tremble the way a father’s chin trembles. Then, in one motion, he pulled his arms out of his wool coat and swung the coat around them as a blanket. He hooked the black horn clasps, so they were all a lump of headless, legless man stuffed with fur. Some of the little ones giggled in the dark. He pulled the coat tight, to hug them with it. His eyes were filling with tears, which they could not see.
He stammered to them, “I-I’m sor- I’m sor-…” He gave up, let the words emerge, paper pulp dropping from his tongue, “We build our days with fin and hoof, with wing and sweetened fang. Distance again expands voiceless between us, as an uncoiled shell. Yet, love endures, starving and alone. A dove's wings clung about my heart each night with surging gentleness, as a blue stone, dipped in gleaming tides, blood and vine. We dare not share with us the breath released, brother-thief that we recall, because we take the wing and scar it in the hand. We must die to understand. We must—.” He bit his lip to stem his speech, peered through the neck of the coat, then rushed back to his pulleys. He stared straight down at the busily crumbling world, watching for Mother, holding onto the loose, fuzzy rope.
The bunnies stayed swaddled together, anxious for their mother to return, for her to climb up into the bright evening of the clouds and be with them. They took turns peeking out of the greatcoat, being the “head.” Down inside, they would grip each other and chatter their excitement or fear in the warm dark. When the little ones had settled down, the eldest sister poked her head up. She could fit her arms partway down the sleeves, and when she stood, the coat grew taller on her shoulders, so beneath her was a cozy room for her siblings.
She studied her surroundings. The ship itself appeared more grown than made. The smooth, jointless deck wrapped around a central hump with a cave-like passage leading below. She put her face into the coat collar and said to the others, “It’s all one, like a flying tree.”
She heard a mechanical rattling and looked up again to see the rabbit operating the pulley system, pulling rope over the side quickly and easily. After some time, his stringy, bowing arms brought up sacks of this or that. He slipped them from the rope and tossed them aside. Eldest watched him stand there still again, waiting. When he pulled again, this time straining, his boots pressing against the siderails, she felt it in her spine, the strain and the worry. Over the edge came a large bundle, all wrapped in mud-smeared white sheets and tied with twine. The rabbit detached it from the line and held it reverently in his arms. He looked where its eyes would be as he lowered it to the deck. Sister recognized her brother’s body, wrapped in bedsheets and pillow cases.
“Stay down,” she said to the little ones. She looked, looked for traces of fur, a bit of an ear to show beneath the wrappings, or some sign of a surreptitious breath behind the linen. She looked, and she tried to bring to mind a special thing to call him, but she could only think of him as “Brother,” and now, “brother who died.”
All at once their Mother climbed onto the deck, tossed her sacks aside, and came to embrace her coat-full of children. Several snuck out from under the coat to smother themselves into her dress and touch her belly fur. They felt her love-starved limbs tremble, but in those arms they could leave the last few days behind. The bunnies were afraid, but not lost. Mother lowered herself into their midst, and they all slept in a pile.
Eldest Sister woke in the middle of the night and climbed from her wool cave. Mother had gotten up, and she sat apart from them with the odd rabbit, all the sacks and bundles were gone, even the one, and the two adults pointed into various distances as they talked.
The ship was moving. It lunged through the air, at times steady, at times trembling and tipping. Cold and damp swirled about. She heard Mother say, quietly. “I don’t care where we go, but I must leave him in a proper hill of grass and dandelions. Somewhere safe. He’ll need to be safe.”
Sister returned to the coat and covered her ears.
All evening and into night, the ship soared, bird-like. It also grew. At the pace of an hour hand, it sculpted its sidewalls and deck around the bunny children to shield them from the wind. Waking warm in the eyeless morning, they found the wool coat gone, and next to them a fibrous, woolly, and, to them, giant bear. The sun had just tilted its head to reach the ship’s deck, and light tangled into the bear’s deep fur, etching acid orange light and bruise colored shadows around his frame. Some of the bunnies had already snuggled against the bear in their sleep. Its fur smelled of exotic mud and vinegar. The bear made a low grunt when it saw them squirming and staring. The earthy cave of its voice thrilled them, and those in the pile popped up to see. The bear grunted something again, this time a word, but none of them could tell what it was. The littlest bunnies admired the bear’s bright button eyes and giant limbs, and they climbed up onto his legs and over his belly and into his arms, gripping his fur with their tiny paws. The bear made a few long low growls, laughing a bit, then panted to catch his breath. They giggled at the feel of his voice vibrating in their paws, the up and down of his belly and chest, and they chirped for more.
Eldest Sister held back, tucked into the newly formed wooden hovel, and she watched as the bear stuck out a giant paw, offering her siblings a mound of dried blueberries. All the little bunnies pounced. Sister found his posture wrong. He appeared weak, sickly. She closed her eyes and leaned into the lively wood of the ship.
The little ones stayed close to the bear all morning, and Sister kept lazy watch over them. Mother Rabbit brought more food for them all, brought a storybook, ribbons, a doll, marbles. She came to kiss her children, to nap with them in the warm afternoon, and she put her paw on the bear’s paw to show her gratitude. She spent her other hours at her son’s side, nursing her grief.
The bear pointed out parts of the ship—vines that were the rigging, knot-like formations that served as eyes, fleshy sails, and the barely perceptible beat of the ship’s heart. He pointed out things down below that from up high looked suddenly foolish—the river, the monument to St. Peter, bicyclists, a flock of ducks in formation. He tried to tell them things that he knew from books, and sing little songs, in case they wanted to sleep. He said everything in a few words at a time, pacing himself, otherwise he would run out of breath, his words crack and garble, and he might fall into a fit of coughing. He said to Sister, when he caught her eye, “Your Mother would not rest—,” he breathed in and out and in again, “until she found you.”
The bunnies adored the bear’s voice and the tingling that filled his chest when he sang. As the ship glided west, away from the descending night, the bear’s slow songs allowed the young rabbits to drift into dreams, not all good dreams, not deep or distant dreams, because life was already a dream, but into a half-sleep of visions that flowed along the delicate veil of his voice. Sister slept, too, and felt the ship taking hold of her, like a great hand around her waist and shoulders.
Sister woke in the evening and went to find her mother. She was sitting by the body, her hand on its shoulder. Sister approached carefully.
Mother looked at her sleepily, her face exhausted and frightened for a moment, until she put on a smile.
“Come, dear.” She held out her free arm.
Sister didn’t want to enter an embrace, not so close to the body. She sat at her mother’s knee. “Mama, are we going home soon?”
“Of course we are, of course.”
“Not much longer.”
“I miss our house.”
Mother drew Sister to her by the shoulder and squeezed her daughter’s head against her breast, leaned her lips and chin between the child’s long silken ears.
“Sweet girl, my little girl” she said.
Yasha stiffened at first, but her mother’s grip did not relent, and so she relaxed into the unexpected affection. This had the effect of opening something between them, a passage between their bodies, scratchy like twine, a granite cold. Through the passage, straight into her chest, Sister felt terror and anger, lifetimes of regret rushed into her body. Sister’s breath came short. Mother wouldn’t let go. Sister felt the unraveling of that anonymous pain between their two chests, forming knots and tangles, and she couldn’t stop it. She was afraid of bursting into tears in front of her mother, and so squeezed her face tight. She counted to thirty. She thought about trees, roots, vegetables, fences. Every thought sank.
When her mother let go, at last, Sister hid her face and ran away.
At the other end of the ship, she encountered the Rabbit, emerging from the darkness below deck, a bottle of reddish amber under his arm.
“Hold!” he whispered sharply.
Sister jolted at his voice, then stopped, taking a step away as he approached.
He kneeled to see her more closely. He whispered, and Sister even saw a sly smile, “No running on deck.”
“Yes, Mr Rabbit.”
“Mr Crane,” he corrected her.
“Yes, Mr Crane.”
“Mr Hart Crane.”
“Yes, Mr Hart Crane.”
“There’s no where to rush to on a ship, young one.”
“Unless the captain orders you.”
“How is your mother?”
Sister wasn’t sure how to answer. She knew how to be polite, but she didn’t think Mr Crane was asking a question of politeness. And while she could picture in her mind how mother was, she didn’t know how to say it, or if what she would say would be true. She realized that instead of answering, she was nodding, and that Mr Crane was nodding, too, as if they had understood something together. She remembered that when he had spoken before, it had been garbled, strange words like poems. “Your words,” she hazarded, “are clearer.”
Crane laughed a bit and looked back into the dark tunnel leading below deck. “I’ve been filling up.” He patted his belly and gave a grin. Then his eyes widened and the humor was gone. “I’m sorry about your brother.” He really was sorry. Sister thought he might weep.
“Thank you,” she said. Dumb words, she thought.
“You’ve been crying. I’m really so sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t help him.”
Sister backed away. She wanted to be with her siblings again. She was exhausted. She didn’t want more of this.
“I’m going to do my best,” he said. “I’m going to try to help him. I’ll need you—and your mother—to trust me.”
“Yes, sir. I have to go to sleep now, sir. Good night.”
The rabbit Mr Crane nodded and waved her away.
Sister squeezed herself into a warm spot against the siderail, her heart thrumming her wide awake, her head propped so she could gaze out into the sky. Some of the bunnies roused, and the bear, half-asleep, still sang between breaths and snores. The flying tree moved idly through the crust of heaven, sails rippling, falling slack, filling, gasping with sudden lack or sudden lift, and, drifting back to sleep, the bear’s body went silent. Sister listened to her brothers’ and sisters’ breathing, to the sound of the ship like a giant oak clicking and whirring in a storm, and its rustling wings near and faraway. Until she slept, she stared longingly below, looking for signs of the waking nocturnal planet.
Steven Hendricks's work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, Conjunctions, Fold: The Reader, The Encyclopedia Project (Vol. 2), Sidebrow, and at XPC (archived at PennSound, 2005). He lives in Olympia, WA, with his wife and two children, and teaches writing and book arts at Evergreen State College.