The iron kettle rattled on the wood-burning stove. Steam filled the room before Elizabeth rushed in with a towel knotted around her hand. She cradled the hot handle and set it on the dirty, yellowed linoleum countertop, which peeled around the edges.
“Peter! Matthew! It’s done,” She called over her boney shoulder, her dark, long braided hair curled around her neck. Pieces of her hair slipped out of the braid, and stuck like blue veins to her skin. She poured the tea into cups without saucers.
The wood floor creaked when Peter moved and delicately took the cup from Elizabeth, a contrast from the same meaty fingers that left a grey bruise on her right cheek only hours before Matthew arrived. She let out a breath when he took a sip, as if knowing that when his hands were full, they could do no harm.
Peter was a tall and burly man, with red cheeks and yellow skin. His eyes, normally a piercing brown, changed to black when he got angry—which was as plentiful and often as Elizabeth saw a rabbit in the garden. His black hair had changed with age to the color of swollen clouds on a foggy day, and his lips were constantly chapped; cigar ashes following him wherever he went.
“See that rabbit out there?” Peter grumbled to Matthew, a smaller man who had come to stay with the couple for the weekend. He and Peter annually used Peter’s accretion ground in York, Nebraska to club rabbits. It started as a hobby; a chance to take their minds off the depression and to get the rabbits to stop eating the human’s only source of food from the gardens. Until the entire neighborhood heard about their dusk-time activity. And joined in.
Matthew wrapped both hands around the cup and whispered thanks to Elizabeth, who couldn’t meet his gaze. Matthew was different from Peter. Younger, to begin with, and had an innocent charm about him—green eyes as big as a doe’s, which glinted when the sunlight struck them through the window, small pink lips that smiled when he asked Elizabeth if he could help clean up after dinner, sunken cheekbones that created a concerned, hollow space when Peter yelled at Elizabeth for not cooking the green beans just right or when the soup wasn’t warm enough. Matthew wouldn’t hurt Elizabeth in the ways Peter had. But he probably couldn’t afford half of what Peter owned—although to most folk, it wasn’t much.
When Peter and Elizabeth first met, they enjoyed a comfortable life. In only a few years, everything changed. Peter could only find work planting cotton for Mr. Hudgins, a farmer who lived a few miles south. His wage got lowered to the minimum—$1.50 an hour. “It’s the depression, Pete,” Mr. Hudgins said after a particularly grueling day in the field, “you understand. Easier on you, you’ve only got two mouths to feed.”
Matthew sat at the kitchen table adjacent to Peter and looked out the window. “We are gunna get that rabbit tonight!”
“We’re going to get all of them!” Peter shifted and the wooden chair creaked under his patched jeans. He lit a cigar. “Now how’s the wife? No kids yet?”
Elizabeth ducked her head from Matthew’s knowing glimpse. She reached in the refrigerator to start chopping ingredients for the stew.
“Don’t let her be like mine, now,” Peter sifted the embers on the floor, then scratched at them with the bottom of his boot.
Elizabeth washed the dirt off the carrots and celery from the garden.
“I could’ve had ten of them youngins by now.” Peter pressed.
Elizabeth grabbed the sharpest knife in the kitchen. And chopped both ends off the carrots.
“All the doctor say is she’s broken,” Peter coughed.
“Stop it!” Elizabeth turned, pointed the knife at her husband; then gasped, set the knife on the counter and ran from the room.
“Stop it!” Elizabeth turned, pointed the knife at her husband; then gasped, set the knife on the counter and ran from the room.
Matthew shook his head to Peter’s offer of a cigar, “I don’t know what she’d do.”
Peter wiggled his eyebrows, “Maybe I’ll find myself a newer model.”
“You and Elizabeth been together a long time.”
Peter huffed, “Too long if ya ask me.”
Matthew sipped his tea. Peter dusted the embers off his chest-long, greying beard.
“Have you found work yet?” Peter asked.
“Not here. I think after tonight I’ll head east to Waco and see if anyone is looking for a laborer that way.”
“I think the Franks, just on the north side of town are building a new barn. You might check there.”
Matthew scoffed, “Ain’t hardly no one building at this time. Did you know I traveled fifty miles and stopped in each city hall, motel, and knocked on doors—and everybody in that town said they weren’t looking for a tradesman.”
“Maybe try to do something else.”
“Like harvest cotton?”
“It’s better than nothing. I has-to afford this $13-a-month rent somehow! The wife won’t do it. The doctor said she’s gotta rest if we want to have kids.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have any. No extra food or clothes.”
Peter said, “You’d make it work. We always do.”
“Are ya’ll almost ready?” Elizabeth had wiped tears from her cheeks and gathered the men’s winter coats in her arms. Peter’s coat was covered with pieces of fresh cotton and sagged in Elizabeth’s right arm. It was green plaid and smelled like his favorite cigar. Matthew’s was a light jacket—not nearly enough to keep warm.
“I brought some scarves and hats, too. What I could scrounge from the attic.”
“Do ya’ll need anything else?” Elizabeth gripped the knife and began chopping the carrots.
Peter mumbled and opened the crooked screen door. Matthew said no, but thanks, and the truck thundered to life as the men left.
In a clearing surrounded by fir trees, the men uncoiled chicken wire with flashlights tucked under their armpits. “Now be careful with this flashlight. It cost me 79 cents. Don’t lose it,” Peter shifted the cigar between his dry lips to shake the embers.
The air was fresh and smelled like grass after a short rain. Their boots soaked with dew. When they reached the trees, Matthew called to Peter, “That ought to be enough right here.” They laid the chicken wire on the ground. When the hunt began, two men would hold the wire up, stopping the rabbits, and eventually close the wire around them to form a cage.
Soon, headlights peaked over the hills. Neighbors from many miles and even towns away parked their trucks in rows as if ready for a tailgate.
They started a bonfire on one edge of the clearing and men lit wooden torches from the flames. Peter and Matthew held their flashlights at their chests, sitting on the tailgate of Peter’s rusty pickup.
Once everyone had torches lit, Peter stood on the tailgate high above the flames. “Ya’ll ready for some rabbit?” He screamed.
The men with torches raised them and cheered in response. Some cracked open beers.
“Ya’ll ready to take back our land? To end the over pop-u-lation and put a stop to them eating our food? To stop them from burrowing in our gardens? To stop them from sticking to us like a helpless baby on a tit?”
“To bring them back to your wives to cook you some stew?”
“Alright! We’ll start at the edge of the hunting ground in the trees! A few men stay up here to stop them with the wire. The ones hunting, spread out—but not too far from each other—and we’ll corral them into the chicken wire where the others here will trap them!” The men started for their positions. Peter lit a new cigar and walked down the hill, ready to find those bastard rabbits.
It didn’t take long for the rabbits to start running. Furiously.
“Look here, Matthew!” Peter smiled as he scooped a pure white rabbit with babies still suckling. The babies dropped to the ground. Peter shoveled up two of them in a fist. They writhed between his fingers. Peter threw the doe as far as he could. Matthew saw her land in a pile of dust; his stomach churned. Peter dropped the babies on the ground and they fled as soon as they hit the dirt. Peter laughed. “That momma will make for some good stew!”
As they made it to the top of the hill, Matthew saw hundreds of small, dark figures squirming against the chicken wire. The ground came alive. They multiplied each time Matthew blinked. Seventy.
Men circled the wire into a cage. They secured it with rope. The cage was the length of a football field, about half the width, and the floor was made of rabbits. Jumping, screaming vermin. There were enough for the clubbing to begin.
Men sprung over the chicken wire the same way Matthew used to jump hurdles in high school.
With a club in his right hand, Peter grabbed for the space around his ankles; bunnies hopped around him as plentiful as maggots on the eyes of a dead bird. Peter wrung his hands around two fuzzy, floppy ears and pulled hard, the bunny squeaked in fear as it writhed under his giant fist. Then Peter swung at it like popping a piñata. The only thing left in Peter’s hands were two twitching ears; the rest of the body landing in bloodied pieces on the other side of the cage. Spots of blood smeared Peter’s plaid flannel. Elizabeth would have to scrub the meat and bone from the clothes when the men got home.
“Get ‘em good now!” Peter howled at Matthew as he reached for another.
Some men preferred running through the cage and swinging blindly, killing en masse. Not Peter. Peter liked to take his rabbits one-by-one. To look in the bastard’s beady eyes before taking a swing.
Matthew froze, watching Peter. He smelled the blood—like rusted iron. The frenzy of the rabbits. The excitement of the men. The sound of a rabbit brains exploding when coming in contact with a wooden club, like the crack of a home run. He couldn’t do it. Something in him snapped. He pictured Elizabeth collecting their brown-stained plaid shirts and jeans to clean while he and Peter would drink beers on the couch, until eventually, Peter would pass out, snoring. Matthew would wander into the kitchen to find Elizabeth on her knees, long braid over her shoulder, furiously scrubbing Peter’s shirt with an old toothbrush trying to extract the fragments of liver, heart, or eyeballs from the wool. And if it weren’t perfect, there would be hell to pay.
No, Matthew couldn’t do it.
Not this year.
Not another minute.
His throat closed, a cold sweat dripped over his body.
“Get them, Matthew! Get them!” Peter yelled as he clubbed another rabbit.
The cage, though, even with all the men filled inside, wasn’t getting anywhere close to empty. In fact, it was still full of grey, brown, and white rabbits. They crawled, hopped, scrambled over Matthew’s work boots as if trying to find a hole to wonderland.
Peter was hollering at Matthew, urging him to hit one of those little bastards, and when he took a step towards Matthew, he tripped, his flashlight fell under the rabbits. And he would’ve gotten back up; Matthew saw him try. But Peter stumbled in the vermin, which jumped over him, onto his back, through the space between his dirty undershirt and overalls. Peter brushed them out of his clothing with one hand and steadied himself on his knees with another, tried to get a foot under him to stand, but more and more rabbits leaped on top of him.
“Matthew!” He yelled.
Matthew took an instinctive step forward, and watched in horror as the amount of bunnies tripled, forcing Peter on his stomach. Peter yelled for help again, and managed to roll over, his arms flailing until eventually, too, the rabbits were holding those down.
Matthew wanted to find a spot to step, but the ground was full of rabbits.
Other men tried to come to Peter’s aid; they stopped and screamed when bunnies climbed on their pants. As they high-stepped to get them off, they fell. “No! Stop!” Matthew cried, mostly to himself, to the bunnies, although it wasn’t to anyone. And all Matthew could do was turn and run for the edge of the chicken wire. Men hysterically followed his footsteps, some tripping, others stumbling.
“We gotta get the bunnies off!” Matthew yelled as he looked back and saw the bunnies overtake Peter’s face, hopping and twitching on his body as if he weren’t even there. And he wasn’t. He’d lost sight of Peter.
Matthew leapt over the chicken wire to safety, gasping for breath; some men joined him, and others fell below the mass of rabbits.
Horrified, Matthew watched, as Peter screamed once more, “Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Save me!” He opened his mouth to scream again, and the two baby bunnies Peter picked earlier, laughed at, and flung their mother; Matthew swore-to-God it was the same ones, dove straight for his wide-open mouth. Peter choked and tried to sit up to cough the first bunny out, but it wiggled its hips through his teeth. The next one followed. Peter’s eyes widened, and then—were covered by a white rabbit. The same white doe Peter had slung. Peter’s body seized under the mass of bodies then fell silent.
“They’re killing them!” A man yelled, and they were, Matthew saw, and stood with his mouth open, horrified, as he watched the rabbits slip down the throats of choking, foaming men. Desperate—after years of being clubbed—to burrow for a new home.
Kara Hagan lives with her husband and cat in a small, rural Nebraska town. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Currently, she is an adjunct and ESL instructor at a local community college. You can connect with her on Twitter: @karajhagan