This story was written shortly after I moved to Nova Scotia from inner-city Toronto. CBC Radio’s Atlantic Airwaves broadcast my reading of it on March 10, 1984.
Nine o’clock in the morning. Perfect winter. I opened my cross-and-bible door and looked out at it. Sun and moon and one last star shone in the same clear sky. The air was crystal, sharp; the snow blue with cold. The brook across the road spoke with icy clarity: I’d have to dress well for my morning hike to check the snares, or come back numb with pain.
I left a half-hour later, wearing long johns and woollen socks snitched from my husband’s drawer. He wouldn’t miss them; he was thousands of miles away, working in the city we’d left a year ago, a city he hated. Poor devil, I thought, it’s really not fair. There you are, knocking up flats in the film studio’s greasy air, and here am I, stepping out with the elegant spruce, wearing your socks. My chest filled with light, and I stood and laughed aloud at the foot of our hill. A blue jay, cross with fright, screamed weep! weep! and flew ahead of me into the steep wood.
Half-way up our hill I paused for breath, and looked back over my new world. New to me, but not to it, I thought. There was our house, two hundreds of years old, and our barn, the same. The trees were probably, like me, in their thirties, but this hill they stood on, this drumlin, was left behind by some negligent glacier so long ago I couldn’t imagine how many millions of generations of trees had preceded them. I loved it, but I could never believe I owned it. If it would just let us live here, I’d be happy.
The first year had been hard: witness my husband’s reluctant departure for the gelt of the city. Still, that plain old house below held other, more honest, treasure. There were shelves and shelves of jewel-like preserves in that little house. There was a mighty chest full of the frozen fruit of our fields, of fish caught, and fowl slaughtered. “If you eat meat, you should be willing to take responsibility for the killing that entails”…last summer we had made a beginning. Our neighbour had chopped off the heads of our chickens, and I had plucked and cleaned them, pleased with my virtue. I had helped scrape a pig, proudly salted down slabs of fat pink flesh. This winter we had set snares, and already had found, by nature’s bounty, many neat little packages of frozen meat on our wonderful hill.
This was the first time I’d done the round on my own, and I was looking forward to being able to take the path at my own speed. There were secrets to be learned here, in the Morse drip of melting snow, in the hieroglyph of rabbits’ tracks. Today I would learn them. I reached the top of the hill, and, breathless, left the main path to check the first three snares, set in a magic hollow under giant evergreens.
I sensed, rather than heard or saw, a movement, a rustling, just ahead, where the snares should be. A partridge, perhaps, grooming itself in the snow? I slowed my step and peered into the shadowy motion. No, there was a rabbit there, flopping a bit, as if it were caught on something, I thought stupidly.
No. Not on something. In something. Dear Father in Heaven, it’s caught in my snare.
I moved closer to the animal, thinking to free it, gently. The creature saw me, a beast of immense size, a thing made of hideous bulges, that reeked, and made great noise, noise of breath and step and rasping coat, and terror seized it wholly. It thrashed and screamed and tore at its trapped leg with its teeth, and I turned and ran from it, ran in fear from its fear and pain.
What could I do, could I do, could I do, blundered my mind. A stick, I must find a stick to break its back, put it out of its horror and hurt. But deep snow covered the ground, and I had brought no knife or axe…why would I? I had thought rabbits were throttled by the thin brass wire, instantly, painlessly. There would be, perhaps, one second’s surprise, one small reflexive shudder, but then, peace. I must do something fast, fast. It was unthinkable that that creature should suffer pain, and worse, terror, because of my credulous idiocy. I must go back to the house and get something to kill it with. Fast.
I lumbered out of the woods, ran down the hill, past the fields and the barn, as if I ran for my life. Inside, the house was hot, and somehow alien. I saw it as I sometimes did when unexpected company came, saw my mess through another’s eyes. Impossible to find anything in this clutter, impossible. And anyway, what was I looking for? A club. Some kind of club. You clubbed animals to death, I thought, or you chopped off their heads. That was it, a hatchet. Somewhere here there was a hatchet.
I ran frantically through the house, tearing open doors, drawers, hating the overturned piles of clothes, and papers, and boxes of junk that hid no hatchet, no hatchet. I can’t keep looking, I can’t keep waiting, I have to go now, I thought. While I look through this rat’s nest, it suffers. I came across a hammer in one of my drawers, and snatched it up. It would do if it had to.
Up the hill I laboured again, as fast as I could, as fast, and yet with a sense of wading through thick, heavy dark. There was no movement at the top of the hill in the place of the snares and I prayed, oh God, oh God, it’s dead. It’s dead. I went forward to pick it up, when it jerked to hideous life, more frenzied, more frantic, screaming panic and pain. One quick blow and it’s over, I thought. Oh, God, let me hit it to kill.
My arm brought the hammer down with all its force. I hit the rabbit’s head, but the blow didn’t kill. In a black dream of ugliness I raised my arm again and again. I hated the thing that I hurt, hated it more than I can tell, hated it for suffering, not dying, for being mutilated, not destroyed.
At last it lay still. I crouched in the snow, and looked at the work I had done that morning. Small blood flecked my hands, the white forest floor, my hammer. The rabbit’s strange sharp teeth were red with blood, too; leg torn, eye haemorrhaged, skull crushed. I crouched there and cried, harder than I had cried even for my dead father, even for my born daughter. I cried for my hands, clever builders, clumsy, cruel destroyers. I cried for the way I had chosen, and for something lost that I wanted, and would want forever.
Later, I leaned forward to release the rabbit. In brilliant sunshine I knelt by its ruin and set the snare again.