“Listen,” she says, and takes Hank’s hand—takes it because intimacy might soften the blow. “What do you think about meeting just the two of us next time?”
On the end of his tether, Horatio stirs. She had thought to catch him sleeping. It is four in the afternoon, the perilous periphery of Sunday roast and radio-drama time, and the red-checked picnic blanket Hank bought new for them at Gimbels is cleared of all but crumbs. The spring sun has the shadows stretched, rolled out like mourning ribbon across the new grass, and the only sound above the breeze is the youth choir from a Harlem church singing the way young children sing, all enthusiasm and little finesse. It has been a show tune of an afternoon: one of the slow ones, sewn with sweet violin.
Horatio’s blank black eyes open, and she thinks: Farewell to all that. Hank’s attaché, as he so deprecatingly calls Horatio, floats blurrily upright, his tattered uniform twisting with a wind that leaves the leaves untouched.
As for Hank, he only evinces a faint discomfort. “Lil, I explained about him,” he says, and under her confiding hand she feels his fingers twitch. “We’re a package deal.”
“You did,” she allows, heart pounding. Since the demob finished last year there’s no lack of doubled men in lower Manhattan; they joke a girl gets twice the value, when young men are so scarce. Lillian is well versed in the good manners of the age: to listen, to lay a gentle hand atop the living man’s hand and speak softly around the dead one, and say she cannot imagine the feeling—lean-jawed doctors in battlefield dress examining their knot inextricable, saying it was you, you were flawed glass, it is irretrievable—except for all the pervasive cornices where she can. There is, in the back steeple of her memory palace, a little room where lives a small infestation of rabbits, each one a scarling memory, tender and liable to shock. She goes into herself here and there, by night, and holds them gently in her palms; feeds them lettuces and apples that they snatch away and hide. They are beating their anxious back feet against the floorboards now.
“The trouble is, it’s been a few months now,” she says, as Horatio skips and bleaches, fully roused, “and I think you’ve figured out what I’m about, Hank Adams.” She swallows. He feels like a rabbit under her palm, a rabbit concealed. “I’d like to know what you’re about when it’s just you at my doorstep.”
She knows it’s possible. Harriet Jacobi at the delicatessen counter knew a girl whose fellow left his attaché—his double—at home for a whole afternoon, and they went to Coney Island even though it looked like rain and whooped at the city from the top of the Wonder Wheel. She caught a head cold after, Harriet said, but it was worth it, worth every sniffle. Her Tom looked, she said wistfully, so light.
This will be worth it, Lillian reminds herself, as Hank’s double diffuses into a miracle of incohesion. She tries bravely not to pay him mind—it is uncouth to stare at the tether—but it is impossible not to look at Horatio. When he is especially upset, he stutters like bad cinema reel, fascinating to watch except for how he’s agonizing: his excoriated limbs play and replay pain previously unexpressable, pain extreme beyond bearing. The moment his knees burst is not the worst suffering; it is the betrayal that comes with every wound. This is not how— his face utters, each time. That’s not what—
Hank looks back at his attaché, captivated by the moment of dying. He’s not a man who looks easily away from pain. “Lil,” he says in his streetcar rumble, “that’s—that’s quite flattering to hear.” But both their eyes are on Horatio. He glares at her behind his empty sockets, teeth bared, his face the last push over the top, and pulls on the tether with elephantine force.
Lillian sees the moment it takes him: Hank’s puzzlement wiped clean, his eyes clear now, not clouded; his steady hand melted to a tremor before he reclaims it and thoughtlessly cradles it, rabbit-like, against his chest. “I thought you wanted us how we are,” Hank says as Horatio mouths the words, and they both stretch to full height, five feet ten and one game leg and one blown-apart torso left washed-up on the roads of France. “I don’t know how you could lead us on this way. That’s—that’s rotten.“
She looks away. There’s no sense protesting. It’s gone. He’s gone.
The sparrows halo out above them, abandoning ship. She tracks their furious shadows on her cool fingertips on the grass as he angrily packs the blanket, throwing picnic plates like mortars into the wicker basket with its charming blue bow. Clank, crash, fwump, punctuated by the duckling choir of children insistently screeching from their hymnals: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. One of them is mumbling, Hank or Horatio, and Lillian does not want to hear the words. She tilts her gaze away, watches instead a child at the farthest fringes, her hair done dutifully in puffed pigtails, looking silently to the sunset line. She thinks: There is nothing a living girl can do to weigh more than a man dead overseas. She thinks: He smiles like smiles are new when Horatio’s sleeping. She thinks, chest full of rabbits: Please don’t go.
Once the hymn ends, all his furious motion ceases. Lillian holds horribly still, waiting for a flicker across the grass. “I can’t—” he starts, and then his shadow retreats, an inch and then out like low tide, and when she dares to look up: gone.
She knew this might happen, she tells herself, and wipes the sting from her eyes. Eleanor will take her out for hot borscht soup and sympathy, and Hank will call on her or he won’t, when he comes down from the shock of it, when Horatio looses his celluloid hands from the safety line. She can’t make him tiptoe out to her across that empty proverbial.
She so wanted him to say yes.
The choir begins to pack its bags, hymnals and milk sent from home in old cola bottles, and when the stubbled grass feels too much like the painpricks behind her eyes she retreats into that tiny conservatory, where the rabbits are agitated and wheeling. She takes her habitual count, and yes, there is a fresh one spawned: small, shaking, lop-eared, swirling as black and white as Horatio’s dying rage, a rage so much more hallowed than all her heartbroke disappointments.
“Oh,” she says, but softly, not to frighten him. “Oh, no,” and gathers him in desperately; cradles him against her breast to soothe his fast heartbeats. Rabbits are easy to frighten, and hard to reassure. Her hands shake. The lean rabbit flickers in her arms, soft haunches and powerful, fragile ears, and she breathes deep, opens her eyes against the tears, and before she realizes just what she’s done she’s carried the lean rabbit outside its conservatory, awkwardly bunched between her arms, his tiny innocuous claws nubbled against her shirtsleeve, and into the park.
She looks around, startled. The sun has barely gestured while she was inside herself: the shadows still thin, and the lean old choirmaster still herding bags up and hats on. The rabbit’s grey fur clouds and clears like wind across a storm sky; his newsreel-dark nose twitches at smells, breeze, temperature. From his tail, the thinnest tether stretches tenderly to her palm.
There’s no sign anyone at all has seen, is looking.
“There’s clover here,” she tells him softly, and sets him into the grass. He tastes and tastes, a blade and then a flower, and she watches, fascinated, as his ears lift and legs stretch out longer; long enough to touch a curve of shadow.
Hank, and her heart leaps, but when Lillian looks up she sees that dreamy little Black choirgirl lingering at the border of her pin oak tree, staring at the half-tame animal twitching around her feet. At the tether laid between them, full visible against her skin.
She catches her breath, suddenly all haunches, ready to run. But there’s a yearning in that face she recognizes: that most physical desire for something gentle and soft; to reach out with a wondering hand.
It’s not done for them to socialize. Last summer ran red in the South and even here, where the streetcars are desegregated, white women don’t go to Harlem, and little Black girls dodge her eyes; their grandmothers’ backs pierced with tethers that lead everywhere, lead into the ground. There are days even after now, now that the men are all come home, when it still feels like all the world is stealing into those middle lands of grey and white. As if one morning, she might twitch the curtain and see a newsreel world outside, every one of them a headline, knotted into bloody statistics, knotted together not by the ties of offer and reply, a wry good cheer shared, the laughing offer of the last slice of rye, but only dumb, shocked pain. All of them perpetuating a great forgetting that once friends bound themselves together with any other cloth than bandages.
She draws a deep breath, and offers only with her eyes: You can pet him if you wish.
The little girl looks over her shoulder, tiptoes closer. Lillian nods encouragement, but not too much. The girl’s face is sunlit with a keen and curious expression: awe at his muscles, his imperfections, his breath. Her hand strokes him in a flash of fingers and then gone, fled around the pin oak tree, back to her playmates, holding her right hand cupped as if the feel of soft fur can be kept safe for a keepsake jar, opened rarely, treasured, precious. In the distance, Lillian hears her finally raise her voice, skipping down the pathway in her best patent shoes. Johnny, that lady had a rabbit!
Lillian’s rabbit stirs. His little eyes have slid shut into a Sunday sleep. A leaf of clover hangs, half-nibbled, from his mouth, and for a moment it’s shaded in black and white, but for a moment, his ears pink, and she sees color.
It is not too late. She can feel the axis righting. Hank is brave; he survived at Ypres. He was kind enough to welcome the dead man tethered into his life. When he walked her home last weekend he took her hand and held it, just under the streetlight, and she saw their skin luminous with current as if they were wet; as if they could sprout, together, a passel of roses. Their ten fingers slid together in a tangled knot that was chosen, not born in furtive pain, and made of more than amputations and offered-up wounds. There is more left than grieving in the world after all, and it is not too late, and not too late.
And then there are rabbits everywhere: grey, white, brown, sleek sleepy black, ranging out around her in the good earth, tasting spring. They are beautiful, and they are scattering beneath the bushes, along the path, and before them exclamations of wonder and surprise, a radiant circle of delight ever-expanding as they stretch out their bodies to be touched.
She leans back and watches them roam free, her heart light and alight. The sun is westering. Past the fountains, a lone fiddler starts up a lone fiddle tune. In the bracken an old woman peals a laugh, and Lillian breathes the stealing evening air, the ocean that connects her to all of it with ties inextricable: roast nuts, new grass, and old hymnals; the scent of Lifebuoy in her hair; musky manure plowed into the quiet-churning soil; a new daffodil; the city splashed green, blue, primrose. Soft fur and sweet clover. Hank’s gentle hand. Life, life, life.
I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise. –George Gershwin
Novelist, editor, and critic Leah Bobet’s novels have won the Sunburst, Copper Cylinder, and Aurora Awards, been Ontario Library Association’s Best Bets, and shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple Year’s Best anthologies and is taught in high school and university classrooms in Canada, Australia, and the US, and her poetry appears in both speculative and literary journals. She was a founding editor at Abyss & Apex, editor of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, and guest poetry editor for Reckoning: creative writing on environmental justice‘s 2021 issue. She lives in Toronto, where she makes jam, builds civic engagement spaces, and plants both tomatoes and trees. Visit her at www.leahbobet.com.