The rabbit was hiding, shivering under the patio steps. It was Easter Sunday, and we were already late for church. The day before I had trimmed the mimosa tree in the backyard, which had blossomed unseasonably early, and there was a fragrant pile of slim branches by the fence.
I looked at the rabbit for a long time, its half-lidded eyes, its nose nervous about nothing. I was wearing heels for the first time and they sunk into the ground. My ass faced out toward the street as I bent over, but I didn’t notice.
My aunt came behind me and smacked me.
“Quit advertising,” she said.
“Hush,” I said. “It’s a bunny.”
She went inside, letting the screen door slap the jamb and give a metallic shudder. I thought the rabbit was going to bolt, but it didn’t.
“Are you sick?” I asked it softly.
My mother had the radio on inside, all country all the time except for 20 minutes of commercials at a stretch. They were playing ‘Love Lifted Me’. I hated that song—it was all round-mouth voices and too much powder.
As I reached out my hand, the rabbit sniffed at my fingers. I stroked its side, and it leaned into my touch. So I tried to pick it up.
In a flurry of fur it tried to wriggle out of my hands. Its little heart fought against me, and I thought of birds. I tucked it into the inside of my cardigan and ran in the house. I could feel its hind feet flailing against me.
“It’s time to go,” my mother called to me, but I shut the door to my room. We didn’t really get along anymore.
I rummaged in my closet and found an old shoebox. The rabbit quivered on my ribcage.
When I set it inside the box, it didn’t move. It just stared at me with accusatory eyes.
My aunt banged on the door.
“I feel sick,” I said. “I’m going to throw up.”
“So?” she said.
We walked to church, half a mile in the sun, sweat in my armpits and between my legs. My mother held a cheese and broccoli casserole covered in aluminum foil that glinted and winked in the light. Our road wasn’t paved then. I think it’s paved now, but I don’t know. As a kid, clean shoes were one of my many pipe dreams.
As I sat through church I looked out the window. I felt like the pastor was talking in slow motion, like we were all underwater. I leaned my head back in the pew and slumped, holding my stomach. Every so often I’d pat invisible sweat off my face. I was building my case, you see.
After that service that lasted for months, we were all supposed to go to a potluck in the gymnasium. But when I told my mother I needed to go home, she didn’t stop me. She just chased me weakly with passive-aggressive pinpricks.
“Fine. It’s Jesus’ day, but if you want to go, then just go.”
So I went. It really was that simple.
I could walk half a mile easily in 20 minutes, and this time I was trotting to get home to the rabbit shivering inside the box on my bed. I half-heard the scrape of tires and a voice behind me.
“Girl, I like your switch.”
I waved him on with my hand, but he lingered. I could hear the faint hum of his radio, although I couldn’t tell what was playing. When I looked back, I saw it was a face I didn’t recognize.
“Where you need to go?” he asked me.
I tucked my chin into the button-up collar of my dress and shook my head, still waving him past me. Beside the road there was a narrow shoulder, a dip and then just dense woods, on and on for acres. I’d never gone in there before. These were thick, heavy trees with old roots, not skinny pines with scraggly needles. They were the kind of woods where you’d find a witch’s house, or a dead body or an illegal still.
“Come on,” he said, his voice thin and whiny. “Don’t be shy.”
My feet felt heavy, and there was a gnawing, buzzing ache in my stomach. My eyes pricked with tears, but I kept up my pace. I begged for another car to come, to pull up behind him or pass him slowly and realize that no, something was wrong. But there was no one else, the world was presently deserted, sorry, be back soon. He slowed the car to an infinitesimal crawl.
“Don’t make me come out there and get you, girl,” he called in a joking, dangerous tone.
I stopped walking. The church had already vanished around the corner, just a few hundred yards behind us but beyond reach. It might as well have been a few hundred miles, I was thinking. The truck stopped too, and he scooted across the seat and reached out to open the door. Black hair, bushy eyebrows, thick nose. Around my uncle’s age, I figured. Red cap set high on his head, bill pointing up. Blue shirt, blue truck. Large hands, dirty fingernails.
Blue sky, bright sun, thick air. And darkness inside the truck.
“Well, sit over there and buckle your seatbelt”, I said.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. He wasn’t polite, though. He was making fun of me. He was fundamentally impolite.
I turned and ran as fast as I could into the woods. I lost one of my heels. I heard him laughing, heard the door slam, heard him trot to the edge of the woods and call out, “Don’t go, you’ll get lost.”
But I didn’t stop until my lungs contracted and shriveled and I couldn’t get any air. Then I stopped, and then I immediately threw up.
Because the trees were so tall and their canopies so thick, the floor of the woods had that dark, loamy look of topsoil from a bag. I smelled mold and fungus, not in a gross bathroom way, but in an airy, earthy way that made me relax and refill my lungs. He hadn’t followed me, but I wouldn’t leave. Just in case he was waiting somewhere. I would cut through the woods and end up across the road right next to the house. This is how I’d survive. So I could get the rabbit, so that it could survive.
I removed my other heel and left it in the mud. I’d lost its mate, anyhow. I walked silently back the way I had come, until I could just see the sliver of gravel and the outside world. I didn’t see the truck. I kept to the woods, always looking for the road so that I wouldn’t get lost. It was actually a shorter walk this way, but I had to watch for twigs and push through thorny blackberry bushes that didn’t yet have their blossoms. Just sharp defenses and no fruit to defend.
My heart slowed as I walked and breathed in the warm scent of vegetal decay and new, green life. There were a few birdsfoot violets scattered around in clumps, like families that don’t visit their neighbors. They’re pale purple flowers with deep, sunshiny centers, but every so often a violet will have one or sometimes two velvety, deep purple petals, a lovely genetic variation. I picked one of these mutations and blew into its center to force out any insects that might have crawled in there and made their home. I tucked it behind my ear, and I was more or less okay.
Since it was sometime just after lunch, I thought maybe I’d have to wake the vet from his Sunday nap. Or maybe he had plans for the holiday, I didn’t know. But he lived just a few houses down from us, and I was counting on him being home. I called him Dr. Almanac, but that wasn’t his real name. I don’t remember his real name. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, since our dog died. We let her deteriorate too far before we finally took her, and there was nothing Dr. Almanac could do. He scratched at the rough skin on his crown, where there was no hair. It was dark and damaged from a life out in the sun. On his desk he had a copy of the latest Farmers’ Almanac in a stand.
“Take her home and make her comfortable,” he said.
He took both of my hands in his, which reminded me of oversized hound dog paws, and smiled. He rubbed the top of my head until my hair stood up in wispy tufts, like peaks in whipped cream. I liked him.
It took a while of walking, but I finally reached the edge of the woods. I had miscalculated where I was, but not by much—the house was less than 50 yards away. No truck, and I sighed out my fear.
I slipped into the house, relishing the warm feeling of afternoon aloneness. The dust played golden in the rectangular light of the back windows as I walked to my little bedroom. My feet left a string of dirty, high-arched prints on the wooden floor.
The box was still on the bed where I’d left it, and the possibility that the rabbit might have died made me hesitate to look inside. Once before I had felt the coldness of a small dead animal, when a stray cat I adopted gave birth to four kittens and one of them didn’t make it through the night. I thought it was just sleeping, and I can still remember exactly how it felt—like a piece of cartilaginous meat pulled from the fridge and draped in cheap fabric.
Incidentally, that was also my first experience with birth, seeing those four mewling blind cashew kittens, three strong and one hopelessly weak. Funny how that works.
I didn’t want to go through that again, but I had to be sure. I sat down on the bed next to the box and looked at my hands for a long time, or at least what seemed like ages. I rubbed my hands on my forearms, just to remind myself of the warmth of life, just before I had to see death.
But I was wrong, and it was still there, still all there and alive and shivering in one corner of the box, looking up at me with wet and woeful eyes.
“Hey, you’re alright,” I said. “You’ll be just fine.”
Its brown fur was just mangled, really awful and raw and a little bit of blood matted between the hairs. It was just a little brown bunny, short in the ears with an oversized head, but I had to keep it alive for my own sense of goodness. It was with a metallic pang of guilt that I saw the marks on the rabbit’s skin, which probably had gotten worse after I caught it. I felt awful for putting the lid back on the box. I slipped on my sneakers, picked up the box and walked with sliding, book-on-the-head grace so that I wouldn’t jiggle it too much.
It wasn’t a long walk at all to Dr. Almanac’s house, compared to what I’d already been through, but my legs felt heavy. I didn’t know anything about adrenaline back then, but I knew whatever had powered me through the woods was leaking out of me like water down the bathtub drain, leaving me very tired and slow. I could feel it.
Dr. Almanac had a pretty little farm in his backyard, and with the early heat some of it was growing before its season. Over his fence I could see the soft tops of his greens, almost ready to be plucked and cooked with a little hot grease to make wilted salad. In a good world, I would come here without a reason except to eat food that had come immediately from the ground. No rabbits, no Easter, no creeps, no sneaking around. There were a ton of happy shining cars parked on the curb outside the house. They were having a party, which I was about to interrupt with a sick rabbit.
The door was open and I slipped inside, clutching the box hard enough to dent the sides. I smelled their Easter dinner, chicken roasting and melting cheese and gravy with the bitter, earthy smell of boiled greens and ham bones. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and the temptation to let someone fix me a plate and a tall glass of water with plenty of ice would’ve been impossible to ignore if the job at hand weren’t so pressing. Even so, my mouth watered.
No one questioned my presence there – they assumed I belonged to someone, somewhere nearby. I sneaked a marshmallow off of a serving dish in the foyer, and as I pressed into my mouth with one hand and cradled the box with the other hand, a woman came up to me and held my shoulders.
“JoAnn!” she said, tears brimming, threatening to eat away at her mascara. “Girl, you’ve just growed up, haven’t you? I’d know you anywhere.”
She wrapped herself around my neck like an old sloth on a tree branch, and I had to hold the rabbit box out to the side so she couldn’t squish it. She sighed and pressed her tear ducts with her thumb and forefinger, smearing the makeup.
“God, it’s just…so good to see you. I’ll go to the potty and catch up with you, young girl,” she said, pointing at my nose.
As I kept looking for Dr. Almanac, I wondered whom she thought I was, what kind of history the true JoAnn had with this woman who smelled like baby powder with a touch of laughter and loneliness. It was the first time I’d been really hugged, properly bear-squeezed, in a long time, and it felt foreign and relaxing. I took a deep breath and tried to adopt her same amiable eyes and sense of belonging.
I found Dr. Almanac by the celery sticks and ranch dressing, talking to a girl who was older than me but not by much, at least not enough to look at me with those flat, judging eyes and purse her lips and run a hand down her hair, not enough to look at me like the face you pull when you have to clean up after a greasy egg breakfast. Like she had a mountain of better things she could be doing, and me, dirty dress and messed up hair and tennis shoes with no socks, stink foot and sweaty underarms.
I touched Dr. Almanac on the arm, and he turned to look at me, same kind eyes and craning head over stooped shoulders. He hadn’t changed, and I guess I hadn’t changed all that much either because he at least knew that I was not JoAnn. He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to a corner, leaving that girl to crack her gum and look from side to side with her bored stare.
“I’m sorry I’m bothering you,” I said. “I just found something I thought you should have. Found something I thought you should look at, ah, take care of.”
He bent over the lid of my box, and I prayed the rabbit was still alive as he looked inside. I realized then that he might not be so inclined to leave his party and tend to a sick animal on a Sunday afternoon. That thought had not occurred to me until that moment. The noise of dozens of people squeezed into a single-level three-bedroom house suddenly felt like just too much.
“It’s okay,” I said, closing the box as he pulled his fingers away. “Never mind.”
“No, not at all,” he said. “I’m bored, to be honest. Let’s see what we can do.”
He swayed as he walked, head bent as though the inside of the house wasn’t quite large enough for him, as though he’d grown too accustomed to open skies and the high, white ceiling of his office. The house was sweetly cozy and cinnamon-colored, but with all the bodies and the early warm weather it was too hot and dim to be truly pleasant.
I squeezed past someone as I followed the broad back of Dr. Almanac. A large hand rested on my shoulder. Dirty fingernails. Bushy eyebrows, black hair, baseball cap the color of a warning.
“Where you going, Dad?” he asked. Same whiny, demanding voice.
“I’ll be back, Paul.” he said in a firm voice. “You just stay here. Go check on your mother.”
The man whose name I knew now was Paul gave my upper arm a bruising squeeze, so hard that I winced. Keep your mouth shut, that was what he didn’t say. Dr. Almanac took my arm at the elbow, in that old-fashioned way, and led me to the door. His car was an old white Buick that needed washing.
We got in. Dr. Almanac was silent for a few minutes.
“That was my son, Paul,” he said. “He’s been away for a few years.”
“Yeah,” I said. The purple tulip-shaped flowers of a nearby saucer magnolia shivered in a warm breeze, and I smiled in spite of my dark, worried feelings. These trees have no greenery on them at all, no leaves or green stems, just upright fuchsia petals that gather around each other like a group of girls in council on a playground. The beauty of it, the loveliest and most optimistic announcement of Easter Sunday I’d seen so far, gave me a little surge of confidence. Sometimes the world is like that, giving you tiny things that propel you to change from the inside out.
“I met him. Out on the road,” I said.
Dr. Almanac looked straight ahead, and I wondered if he was breathing. He said nothing, and I did not offer him any more details. I’d been studying him out of the corner of my eye, and I was beginning to see the shadow of resemblance between father and son. Dr. Almanac had bushy eyebrows, too, and the same ability to fill up a room with the largeness of himself. But it was a totally different interpretation of features, the way a sunflower and a swarm of yellow jackets just happen to both be yellow. I processed Dr. Almanac and his son in opposite parts of my brain.
The office wasn’t too far away, but it was a hazy, slow-moving trip in which Dr. Almanac was unavailable for small talk—leave a message, please. Neither one of us wanted to speak, but we didn’t want to deal with the silence either. I saw another saucer magnolia, on my side of the road. I leaned out the window and took a long whiff, but all I smelled was freshly cut grass and a little lawnmower gasoline. When he roused himself long enough to turn on the radio, I silently thanked him and God and Jesus fresh from the tomb, and the trees outside.
Dr. Almanac’s clinic sat spit-polished and wholesome at the end of a long gravel driveway. As a child I thought it looked like a fairytale cottage—the godmother kind, not the witch kind—and in a way it still did. I could just see the hints of wear and tear, a little loose gutter here, a rusty rumbling generator over there. But the shrubs were brilliant Disney green, and the pansies and Mexican heather along the walk were in glorious bloom. There was something safe and clean about it, even with the faint shimmer of dust along the reception desk and ratty magazines.
“In here,” Dr. Almanac said—the first thing he’d said in 15 minutes. Inside that room was animal hospital, white and just a little messier and more compact than a human hospital.
In my heart I wished that he would make little jokes, like when he took the bottle of rubbing alcohol and pretended to drink a sip behind my mother’s back, just to make me laugh. I wanted it to be fun again, but there was only so much I could hope for. This was older than me, bigger than me.
But as he lifted the shivering, half-dead rabbit onto the soft towel under a small operating lamp, his features began to soften.
“You’ve been through a time, little fella. Hey kiddo, you want to be my assistant?”
I breathed out and nodded.
“Open up that closet,” he said, pointing to a thick door over his shoulder.
At his instruction, I reached on my tiptoes to retrieve a clear box that looked suspiciously like plain old Tupperware. Inside were a spool of medical thread, a few needles and other tools I didn’t recognize, like special tweezers. Meanwhile, he kept one large but impossibly light hand over the rabbit as he pulled a syringe and a vial of fluid from the cupboard behind him. Over the rabbit’s twitching, worried nostrils, he affixed the smallest oxygen mask I’d ever seen.
“This juice will give him a little vacation. Pop the top off that vial,” he said. “Pull the cap off that syringe—careful, now—and hand it to me.”
He pushed the needle into the vial and with his one deft, free hand he pulled the fluid into the syringe. I never asked what it was. The rabbit went from weak trembling to stony sleep within a few minutes.
“Now comes the tricky bit,” he said.
In the harsh operating light, Dr. Almanac and I could really see just how bad it was. The rabbit’s skin hung loose, exposing the raw flesh underneath along his back and haunches. Its eyes were half-closed.
“You know those breakaway pants that basketball players use?” Dr. Almanac asked me. “That’s like a rabbit’s skin. It just pulls away from the flesh so easily. They have weak hearts, too. They can literally get scared to death.”
No one ever told me how fragile rabbits are. I never knew. How could something so preternaturally delicate survive for so long?
“I was trying to help,” I said, and Dr. Almanac smiled softly.
“You didn’t know,” he said.
With that, he threaded the needle and got to work. And he was right, it was the trickiest business I’d ever seen. Pulling a thread through the rabbit’s coat was akin to pulling a thread through antique lace or an old piece of elastic. Pull too gently and you won’t get your stitch. Pull too hard, and you’ll tear right through. It took a very long time, and a second tiny dose of sedative, to get through the whole gruesome process. The stitches were hard to see clearly through the fur, and anyway I’d lost count of how many there were. Twice the rabbit’s breathing began to fade during his surgery, and twice Dr. Almanac coaxed him back to life.
It seemed like a lot of effort for little reward. It wasn’t someone’s pet we were dealing with, here. But I never questioned it then, and even now I only question it when I’m in my most cynical of moods.
“So what are you going to call him?” Dr. Almanac said as we waited for the sedatives to wear off.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “He came back from the dead on Easter, like Jesus.”
Dr. Almanac tossed his head back and laughed so hard the rabbit began to stir from its soporific state.
“It’s a neat comparison, but we’re not calling him Jesus Christ. How about Lazarus? Same ode to resurrection, just a little less blasphemy,” he said.
I said okay, that worked for me.
Dr. Almanac scooped up Lazarus, whom he had wrapped in another soft, white towel. Lazarus peered out of the folds of the blanket like a soldier in a bunker with his slow-blinking, unsure eyes. I followed the doctor as he carried Lazarus to another room, in which there were several cages with various types of animals, each with its own version and depth of impairment. He slipped Lazarus into an empty cage with a fine carpet of wood shavings, a hotel room all made up for a new guest.
I was eyeing a parrot with plucked out patches and a long crack in its beak.
“That’s Tiffany,” he said. He pressed his fingers against the black wiring of the cage, and Tiffany nibbled at them without malice.
We left Lazarus and stood in the hallway, him leaning on the right wall and me on the left. It was late, and I had forgotten about everything—church, my mother, my aunt, the truck, the party, the house I’d left unlocked. Everything but the warm ecosystem of Dr. Almanac and his house of damaged animals.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is my fault.”
“It’s okay, You helped, that’s the important thing,” he said.
Dr. Almanac put his arm around my shoulder, and we stood together, not saying anything at all for while.
“Can’t read the future,” he said. “Do what you can. That’s enough.”
I nodded, letting my hair rub against the sleeve of his jacket.
“Okay,” I said.
He felt very heavy, as if he were leaning against little me for support, and as he sighed I could smell the pungency of his sadness. He had red veins in his nose.
“I’m sorry about Paul,” he said finally. “I should’ve done better with him.”
“You didn’t know,” I told him, and I felt lightness go through him, as though he’d been transfused with helium.
Fixing animals, it’s not so hard. And to know that there is the possibility of euthanasia, that you can put an animal out of its misery—I wondered if that concession ever granted him any solace. I doubt it though—I was sure he mourned, in his own way, for every creature he had to put down. Poor Dr. Almanac.
“I’ll just, I’ll have a talk with him,” he told me. “Jesus, I don’t know. I’ll do more than have a talk with him. I’ll do something real, I promise.”
As he drove me home I squeezed his forearm once and he smiled with sucked in lips. He gripped the steering wheel and leaned over it, blowing all the air out of his lungs.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We all need to be saved in some way, even if it’s from ourselves.”
I didn’t make that up—it was from the service I’d gone to that morning. It was the only part I remembered clearly. Dr. Almanac and I didn’t go to the same church, because I wasn’t Catholic and I’m almost positive he was.
He didn’t say anything, but he hummed along with the radio, and I considered that to be indicative of something.
Jesus was outside the tomb before Mary Magdalene even found him. If it’s not blasphemy, I like to believe that the first thing he did was to inhale deeply the perfume of fresh air, of green things and life and the goodness of the world he’d just saved. He needed to rid himself of the vestiges of three days’ death. Maybe he took a long stretch, just to feel the continuity and circulation in each of his muscles. To know he was alive. Yes, that’s what I would’ve done.
Lindsey Sanchez lives in Denver. Her fiction has been published online and in an anthology of ghost stories by Alabama authors.