Rabbit Stew

By Joseph Eastburn

My father was Southern, and stories were a big part of my understanding of who we were. There was the one about how his family piled into a Model T Ford, or “The Fidder,” as it was called, and moved to New York where the eldest son, Cecil, was moving up at Burrows Adding Machine. There were the exploits of Leslie, the second son, in a convertible with his ukulele and raccoon coat. Before that, there was the story about how in the early 1930s, just after Christmas, the family’s house in North Carolina burned to the ground—how they had to scramble with nine children to find a place to live that winter; for many years, no one knew how the fire had started. In fact, it was a jealously guarded secret. What was no secret, however, was that my grandmother, Charlotte—whom I knew only as “Granny”—loved rabbit stew.

My father married and settled in northern New Jersey. When I was growing up, we lived on a country road with a steep hill of woods behind our house. The neighbor to our left was a man named Ralph Roberts. We knew he hunted when we heard shotgun blasts in the distance during hunting season. Once I saw a deer hanging in his backyard and, not knowing why it was hanging there, assumed it was some mysterious process that hunters engaged in and didn’t question it. When my father thought I should go on my first hunting trip, he called Ralph and asked him if he would induct me into the strange world of killing and eating animals.

I had been over to the Roberts house a few times and knew Ralph’s son, Don, a big, quiet, athletic guy with a blond flattop who was my older sister’s age. Every morning I would see him walk to the bottom of his driveway with his books when the school bus stopped along our road. One of my sister’s girlfriends, Micky, was madly in love with Don. One night she came over to our house and (at least in my memory of it) invited between five and fifteen girls along for moral support. It seemed like fifty. What was the big event? Micky had gotten up the nerve to go ask quiet Don to go steady. She’d gotten my sister involved because of her proximity to the Roberts house.

It was a warm summer night with a soft breeze that was everywhere agitating the tree leaves. As the younger brother, I naturally tagged along and was surrounded by a herd of colorful summer dresses as we galloped up Don’s driveway in the dark. One of the girls started yelling like a banshee and the rest of the girls joined in so that—with the exception of an embedded little brother—we must have looked like an attacking horde of pubescent teenage girls storming the battlement and asking for Don’s head, or some other remarkable body part. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts appeared outside the rear screen door, puzzled but smiling. We chanted “We want Don!” until—flattop glistening with hair tonic, and wearing a fresh striped shirt and black chinos—Don appeared to rousing cheers and was spirited away, for all I knew, to a human sacrifice. Whether he ended up going steady with Micky or being eaten, I can’t remember.

We had an additional wooded lot between our properties that had been cleared of underbrush and planted with grass, but the trees—the tall oaks, white birches, and sugar maples—created a cathedral of shade above and a natural series of green curtains between the Roberts house and our own. My father built sheds on that lot where he kept lawnmowers and gardening equipment. On the other side of the sheds, he built a music studio around a tall oak tree, enclosed by a skylight that leaked. He kept adding on, building a bedroom above one wing, and eventually when my parents decided to separate, my father moved into his studio. I have vivid memories of my mother calling my father on the phone in the mornings with a somber tone and telling him that breakfast was ready. My father would walk down from the studio in a robe, greet us, and eat quietly at the breakfast table, looking chagrined.

On the land above the studio, my father actually built me a baseball field with a regulation backstop, and for my birthdays, we would sponsor a baseball game where I would be the captain of the Yankees and another kid would be the captain of the Dodgers. There would be a prize bat for best player, a new white baseball for runner-up, and a booby prize—usually a piece of fruit painted to look like a baseball—which, when hit with a bat, would explode. The irony of this was that in my forties I moved to Los Angeles and became a Dodgers fan, much to my own personal torment. Surely this was the work of a God with a wicked sense of humor.

As a child, at every one of my birthday baseball games, I ended up crying loudly and enthusiastically when things didn’t go my way. I mean, first of all, how many kids in the world had fathers who built them a baseball field? How could I be crying? What problem could possibly be important enough to bring me to tears? My father grew up in a poor family in the South, had eight siblings and must have wanted for everything—so I realized he was compensating and lavished on me what he had been deprived of as a boy. One birthday party, he was pitching and I was on second base, crying my eyes out. He turned around to me, his face red, voice raised with shaking emotion, and shouted for me to shut up, just shut up. Looking back now, as a parent, I understand the height of his emotion. Whenever our children cry, parents take it personally, as if our own unresolved childhood emotions have reappeared out of someone else’s body like ghosts to haunt us.

With my friends, I built makeshift tree houses on that wooded lot between the Roberts house and ours. Once when I’d climbed high up in a tree with my friend Kevin, my sister walked outside with a sandwich and, while she ate it, called up to me, “Don’t fall for Atlantic City!” That must have been the summer we drove down to the Jersey shore for a family vacation. My parents went to play golf, and when my father apparently tried one too many times to tell my mother how to hit the ball, she lifted her club in the air and tried to hit him over the head. He raised his arm to protect himself, and she broke his elbow. So he bought her a car. That pretty much captures my parents.

I once constructed a platform between three birch trees about ten feet off the ground, built a side wall, pounded nails into it at different angles, and pretended they were switches to blow up the world. It was the fifties, after all, with air raid drills at school where we would hide under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. My cousin’s family even built a fallout shelter. With an older kid named Douglas, a neighbor not as nice as Don, (who may have had sinister ideas in mind), I built a tree house in an oak tree high above a giant boulder. After having a few drinks one night, my father stormed out with a hammer and ripped out the first few pieces of two-by-four we’d nailed as a ladder above the rock—apparently to keep me from falling and killing myself. The next day he hired a carpenter to build me a real tree house in a different giant oak above the baseball field. One year, a girl I had a crush on came to one of my baseball games with her girlfriend and from high in the tree house cheered for my team. I never really liked the professionally built tree house as much as my own dilapidated creations, but I did go up there to smoke and with my friend Walter, sleep out overnight, discuss the bewildering and mystical parts of girl’s bodies, and beat off.

From that baseball field is where I first saw the dead deer, antlers and all, hanging from a tree. I didn’t dare go up and look at it. To see such a beautiful animal hanging dead just behind my backstop was too dark and menacing for a middle-school kid to contemplate. When I asked my father about it, he said something about the deer curing before Ralph would slaughter it to harvest the venison. I didn’t want to understand any of that, but the meat itself sounded exotic, so to my young brain, it helped me forgive Ralph Roberts for killing the deer.

The night before my hunting trip, my parents suggested I lay out my clothes. That’s when I came up with the crazy idea of wearing football cleats. Sneakers just didn’t seem to be rugged enough. The next morning at 5:00 a.m. when I clomped up the Roberts’ black tar driveway, Ralph came out the back door and said, “What in the world have you got on your feet?”

When I told him, he shook his head and told me I’d have to take them off before I came in for breakfast. Ralph’s wife served us bacon and eggs and coffee, and I when I saw Ralph sponge up the egg with the cake side of a sweet roll instead of toast, I did the same. After breakfast, he took me over to his gun case beside the mantle and lifted a .410 shotgun out from behind a glass door and handed it to me. It was light. He showed me how to break open the barrel and load the chamber. He dropped a handful of thin green shells into the pocket of a tan game jacket he said I could wear. He even opened up the ends of two shells with a pen knife to show me the size of the .410 BBs compared to the larger BBs for his double-barrel 12 gauge. When I put my cleats back on, he began shaking his head again. We started climbing the hill behind his house just as it started to get light out. He said I was going to warn every animal in the woods that we were coming.

It all happened very fast. He’d been telling me that I might get a rabbit because they come out of their holes in the morning when it’s cold and hop around to get warm. Sure enough, a rabbit ran by us and it was so slow, it might as well have sauntered by. I lifted the .410, clicked the safety off, and fired in its direction. I remember the cloud of smoke. I guess I winged it, because Ralph rushed over and grabbed the rabbit up by the scruff of the fur and banged it on the head with the barrel of his shotgun. The combination was enough to kill it. Ralph unsnapped the back of the game jacket I was wearing and placed the rabbit in a small pouch. All the way back down the hill, I could feel the warmth of the animal against the small of my back. It didn’t occur to me that the warmth was fading as I walked. My father was proud of me and seemed moved when he saw the game I had killed. I didn’t understand why. He wrapped the rabbit in newspaper, placed it in the freezer (my mother would shortly discover it by accident and scream), then he took me out onto the back porch to tell me a story.

When his family’s house had burned down that winter in the ’30s, my father was about fifteen years old. His father, who worked as a bricklayer and a shopkeeper who sold meat to the Army, had fallen on lean times but had managed to find work as a caretaker for a farm estate where he tended the grounds, fed the animals, and kept the farm machinery working. The big empty house where they lived was heated by a giant fireplace in the kitchen. To get them through that first month, my father used to set rabbit traps at night, get up first thing in the morning, check the traps, and usually catch a rabbit or two. He would bring the rabbits in and clean them (I didn’t understand until much later what this meant), and his mother would roast the fresh meat over an open flame or fry it in a cast iron pan. Meanwhile, my aunts would come downstairs and stand in front of the fireplace to keep warm while they were dressing, and my grandmother would serve the family fried rabbit and fresh biscuits for breakfast. Later, she would add carrot, onion, and potato to make rabbit stew.

Before my grandmother died, she ate the rabbit I shot, or so I was told. That marked the end to my rabbit story, and it was, to my thinking, a happy ending despite the fact that a pitifully slow rabbit had been roused from its burrow by the scrape of football cleats on a cold morning and had met its fate by a middle-schooler’s first shot. I never saw my grandmother eat the rabbit. For that matter, I never knew if the story about my father catching rabbits when he was fifteen was true. So I have to take his word on both counts. But I found out years later that his family house had burned down when my grandmother tried to put the Christmas tree in the fireplace.

My father told me Granny ate that rabbit stew in the months before she died and was gratified that her sensitive grandson had been the one to kill the rabbit. I have to believe this story is true. When I told the story to my wife, she frowned and said, “Who cooked the stew?”

I said without hesitation, because it made a good story: “My father, of course.”

 

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Joseph Eastburn earned a master’s degree from USC, where he taught writing for ten years. His writing has appeared in American Theatre, Apalachee Review, Crack the Spine, Penmen Review, Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Slow Trains, The Sun Magazine, Tower Journal, Sand Hill Review, and Hobo Pancakes. His first novel, Kiss Them Good-Bye, was re-published by Morrow in January, 2016. His new novel, A Craving, was 3rd Place Winner in the Operation: Thriller Writing Competition.


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