Second Place Winner, Short Story Category, Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, 2010
Grant groans beside me, waking to his internal alarm. He flicks on the lamp, flooding the room with harsh light. I turn away, curl in a tight ball and stare into the shadows where the steep slope of the roof cuts into the room. I’ve been awake for hours.
“Did you make my lunch?” His voice is deep and rough, like he’s smoking too much again. I don’t move.
“I know you’re awake.”
I roll over, stare at his lean back. Wide shoulders taper down to a narrow waist. Each muscle clearly defined, maybe five percent body fat. It’s from hauling around a chainsaw all day, up and down steep logging blocks, cutting down trees.
I usually make his lunch in the evening, while he sits with a beer in front of the TV. I slap corned beef into buns, hack up banana loaf, cram pickles into a tiny Tupperware container, knowing damned well Gloria Steinem or Erica Jong would sooner put their head in an oven than do what I’m doing.
I sink the tip of my freezing nose into the duvet. “I forgot.”
“You forgot. What the hell is wrong with you?”
When I don’t say anything, he grabs his work clothes and heads down the hall, oblivious to his heavy footfall past the kids’ room. It’s not his problem if they wake up.
I lean over and turn off the lamp. Moments later, light streams up through the cracks between the floorboards from the bathroom below, slicing through my cocoon of darkness. I listen to Grant slam around for a couple of minutes then throw aside the duvet.
In the kids’ room, Linea’s tangled blond hair spills over Gus, her grey tabby, curved around her head. In the crib, Brody is splayed on his back, his chubby hands curled beside his ears. His lips suck instinctively at the air and I feel my milk drop. It’s so easy to be a good mother when the kids are asleep.
Yesterday I got the call I’ve been waiting for. I have a job. With the Ministry of Forests. Within a month I could be hiking up and down steep logging slash counting seedlings, surveying blocks, checking planting and brushing contracts. Outside in the mountains for eight hours a day. Boot camp with pay. I waited all day to tell Grant.
“What kind of mother leaves a five-month old baby to go to work?” Those were the words he threw at me when he got out of the bush.
After an evening of silence he finally stomped off to bed. I sat in the dark sipping wine, staring at his metal lunch box on the counter. I took the sliced ham out of the fridge. Put it back. Poured some more wine.
I slip down the steep stairs. The stove’s out and neither of us thought to bring in wood before bed. I pull on my rubber boots and a jacket, grab the bucket of rabbit food, head outside. Chaba flops down the path ahead of me, tripping over his big blond paws.
The snowy peaks are soft pink in the early light, floating on a sea of valley fog. The only sound is the crunching gravel under my feet as I head down the driveway. I cut across the stiff grass, past the wood shed to the rabbit pen, leaving a dark trail through the frost. When I approach the walk-in pen the pink-eyed, fluffy mass undulates toward me. I open the door, dump the tangle of carrot peels and apple cores and watch the rabbits feast.
What kind of mother leaves her five-month-old baby? I lean my forehead against the rough chicken wire.
I still don’t have an answer.
My breasts harden and tingle, milk starts to leak into my pajamas. I slip my hand under my clothes and feel my belly, still soft and stretched in spite of four months of bouncing around with Janet Jones Gretzky to her aerobics video. I want my body back. Not this one with the jiggly belly and boobs that spew milk into the air like geysers.
The mother rabbit lumbers toward me. Her babies move with her, as though attached by six invisible strings, nudging at her folds of fat. As she nibbles on lettuce, the male comes sniffing up behind her, then jumps on her back and starts jerking spastically. She scurries away but he follows and keeps jumping her until she finally sits still for a few moments, her body heaving. Lets him finish. As he moves away toward the food, I fight an intense desire to club the horny bastard over the head with a piece of firewood.
My head jerks up in the direction of crunching gravel and my gut tightens. I didn’t hear him come out of the house. He wanders toward the wood shed without seeing me, picks up two huge pieces of dry fir. When Chaba bumps into his leg, he looks up. Meets my eyes. Blue on blue. He drops the wood, walks over to the other side of the pen and we watch each other through the wire. Wood chips and dirt cling to his t-shirt.
“I was looking for that.” He nods toward the jacket I’m wearing.
I threw on his rough wool work jacket when I left the house. I love the smell of the bush that permeates the material; the sap, the newly cut timber, the needles. I even like the smell of the oil and gas from his chainsaw. The faint smell of cigarettes.
“Looks better on you anyway.” He grins.
There’s a gentle smugness on his face, like he thinks he’s won and he’s trying not to appear to enjoy it too much.
“You can take the job next year. When Brody’s older.”
I glare at him and hug the jacket closer, let it swallow me up. “There won’t be a next year.” There must be twenty women lined up for this job.
Grant’s not listening. He’s grinning down at the rabbits, as though they’re the best entertainment he’s had in a while. They’re at it again. The small male pumps away at his mammoth-sized mate for a few seconds till she spins in circles away from him, but he always manages to get back on top. She scurries away. Squeezes, headfirst, between their plywood hutch and the wire and stays there, her soft, pliable body wedged flat in the tiny space. Her mate follows and sits behind her. She’ll have to come out eventually, to eat, to nurse her babies.
Grant’s laughter cracks the air, unnecessarily loud.
I grab the empty bucket and head back across the grass. “I’m going back to bed.”
“You have no sense of humour,” he shouts at my back.
“And you can make your own fucking lunch!”
My bare feet slide around in my gumboots as I clump as fast as I can toward the house.
After Grant has headed into the bush and I’ve cleaned up the disaster he left in the kitchen, I sit on the floor with Linea, half-heartedly walking a bikini-clad Barbie in a circle.
“Not like that, Mommy. Do it like this!” Linea grabs the doll from my hands.
I can’t concentrate. I have until the end of the day to call the Forestry office with my decision. I have to get away from the phone. Linea and I slip on our boots, I swing Brody in his baby pack onto to my back, and we head outside with a new bucket of rabbit food.
On the floor of the pen, the male rabbit lies completely still, stretched out the full length of his skinny body, partially covered with hay. I unlatch the door and the mom and babies rush toward us, up and over the dead bunny, as though he were a mere speed bump.
“He’s sleeping funny, Mommy.”
I nudge him with my foot. He’s already stiffening up. Chaba sniffs him once then slinks out of the pen like he’s expecting a kick. I feel a twinge of guilt for my earlier hostility.
I wait for Linea’s reaction: tears, hysterics, confusion, like the time we found the first litter – two tiny, pink, half-eaten babies – but she just studies the corpse impassively. The female waddles around the pail. I pass her an apple with only two bites missing.
We bury the daddy out behind the woodshed. He’s too big to join his stillborn children down the outhouse hole. We dig until we hit frozen ground, place the body down gently in the shallow grave and cover him up.
On the way back to the house we pause for a moment to watch the rabbits. While her babies nibble on lettuce below, the mother is curled up peacefully on the roof of the wooden hutch. The pinks of her eyes peek at me from half closed lids.