My wife, Violet, and I just returned from a successful vacation in Cedarvale, New York, visiting our friends Harvey and Barb. One evening at dusk we all went swimming in Skaneateles Lake as silent lightning flashed through reddened clouds to the west. When we got home today, we found this note from the neighbors who had been feeding our pet rabbit:
I went to check on the rabbit on Wed. and when I went over the Rabbit was gone. Bud and I buried it by the Dog Graves. We didn’t know how to get a hold of you. Sorry. And I talk to you when you get home.
Betty & Bud
I went next door and spoke to Bud, who said grimly, “I’m sorry about your loss. There was nothing I could do. By the time I got there, she was dead. She must have died right after you left.”
Bud had fed our rabbit many times in our absence, but he never knew her name: Bananacake.
We bought our rabbit seven years ago from a Frenchwoman named Daphne who owned the Country Inn restaurant on Route 28. Daphne bred two types of rabbits: those for soup, and those for pets. Violet chose ours from the pet bin: a white female with gray “points,” meaning its ears, paws, and tail were gray. The rabbit was four months old and seven inches long.
My daughter, Sylvia, was nine at the time. Her friend Viva helped name our new pet.
“Let’s call her . . . ,” Viva said, then started to laugh. “Let’s call her ‘Cupcake.’ ”
“What were you going to say?” Sylvia asked.
“I was going to say, ‘Bananacake.’ ”
“I like that name,” Sylvia said.
Rabbits are not meant to be pets — at least, Bananacake wasn’t. She was a creature who sat in a small cage behind our house, like an inmate in Sonoma State Prison. If we tried to lift her out of the cage, she’d scratch us — deep, blood red scratches. Once she was outside, she’d attempt to run away, but when we ran toward her, she’d hunker down instead of running faster. (Pet rabbits are bred this way.) Thus we could always retrieve her.
I brought over a pot of zinnias to Bud and Betty, plus a little note thanking them for helping with the rabbit all these years. Betty told me the story of how she’d found Bananacake’s body: “It was Wednesday morning. I went back there to see that she had enough water, and I called out to Bud, ‘The bunny’s died!’ She had water all over her; she must’ve knocked over the bowl. And she was facing out toward the door. So we put her in a box and buried her back there on the hill and prayed over her.”
They’d prayed for Bananacake’s soul!
Looking through my files, I found this sonnet, which mentions our bunny:
Poets blunder from line to line, searching for a rhyme — or, at least, more words. “How will I fill up an entire sonnet?” they worry. “That’s fourteen lines!” A pause. “Should I write about my new washing machine, which I hear thrumming in the background? It’s a Maytag front-loader with a child lock and chime.” Another pause. “But does anyone care about my washer — especially the sort of person who reads poems? And is machinery a fitting topic for verse? I should describe some soft emotion: like feeding dandelions to my pet rabbit, Mike.” And the poets stumble on.
Searching for my tenderest feeling, I recalled feeding Bananacake — whose name I changed to “Mike” because each line in a sonnet can have only ten syllables.
Our rabbit’s home was a cage covered by a blue tarp. Yesterday Violet cleaned out the cage and took off the tarp. Viewing the skeleton of the hutch was frightening — like picturing the bones inside a friend’s hand.
Some families have many stories. Our friends Clark and Perdita can go to the mall in Kingston and return with five stories — all great ones. My family has only two stories, almost identical. Here is the first:
When our daughter was twenty months old, we visited Israel with my parents. One day Violet, Sylvia, and I had lunch with friends in Jerusalem. After we’d eaten, we stood in our friends’ backyard, saying goodbye. When Violet and I looked around for Sylvia, she was gone! We were nine thousand miles from home, and our toddler had toddled off! Why wasn’t she crying or calling our names?
We happened to be in a neighborhood of Orthodox Jews, and I’d heard they sometimes kidnapped small children to raise them in a more religious household.
“Sylvia! Sylvia!” we shouted. No answer.
How would I explain this to my parents? We lost our daughter; we were talking to some friends and didn’t notice her walk away.
Finally a smiling neighbor appeared holding Sylvia. “She wandered into my yard, and I didn’t know where she’d come from,” said the woman.
Here is the other story:
My wife went on a weeklong vision quest, leaving Sylvia and me home alone. We took out the rabbit on Friday, then placed her back in the cage. Saturday morning I returned to feed Bananacake. She was gone! (I hadn’t correctly locked her cage.)
Where was she? Sylvia and I ran around calling: “Bananacake! Bananacake!” No answer.
I made a sign and tacked it up in the Phoenicia Market:
A white rabbit,
Two days later a woman called. She’d found a white rabbit in Phoenicia Park. Bananacake was home!
But Sylvia was uncertain this was the same creature. “This rabbit looks different,” she said.
For that matter, are we certain that Sylvia’s the same child we lost in Jerusalem?
When my friend Gillian came to visit me, she begged me to bring Bananacake into my house rather than subject her to the brutal Catskill winters.
“But I don’t want my house to smell like a rabbit!” I responded.
Was I being selfish?
My guru, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, says that a sadhaka (spiritual seeker) should follow a series of practices called the “Sixteen Points.” One of them is “service to animals.” A few years ago I became serious about this “point.” I picked wild plants for Bananacake daily, feeding them to her through the wire mesh of her cage. While I offered her this sustenance, I’d chant the mantra “Baba nam kevalam,” which translates as “Love is all there is.”
According to yogic belief, every creature in the world — and every plant, rock, or mote of dust — is evolving into a transcendental soul-bliss entity. I hoped that by chanting to her each day, I would speed Bananacake’s progress toward universal bliss. At the very least, it assuaged my guilt slightly.
Bananacake came to know the mantra and to associate it with a green snack. She would emerge from her little box within the cage when I chanted. Here are some of the plants I fed her: wild carrot, smartweed, garlic mustard, chickweed, wood sorrel, jewelweed, mugwort. When I gave Bananacake scraps from our kitchen — apple cores, pear cores, or lettuce stems — she’d pull them out of my hand and drag them deeper into her cage to savor, the way a teenage girl might repair to her room to nibble a bar of chocolate.
Today the realization came to me: in my next lifetime I’ll be crouched in a cage, and Bananacake will be the big human feeding me. This thought filled me with terror, but also reassured me that the universe is just.
This past spring a woman named Cindy said to me at a party, “Didn’t you know? Rabbits live much longer outdoors than in a house.”
“I didn’t realize that,” I said. “Our rabbit is seven years old.”
“That’s quite old for a rabbit,” said Cindy.
How about that! Inadvertently I’d been kind to Bananacake.
Today I attended Rosh Hashanah services with my parents in Brooklyn. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. “We think of those who’ve passed away in the last year,” the rabbi said, and I remembered Bananacake.
How absurd! Two days after the anniversary of September 11, I was memorializing a rabbit.
One day Violet brought Bananacake out into the yard, where the rabbit browsed the grass. I came up to our pet, who moved closer to me and sniffed my foot. By her sniff I could tell she was happy. This was the one gesture of approval my rabbit ever gave me, and I find myself cherishing it. Over and over I recall her admiring my foot.
When Bananacake grew old, her relationship to us changed. Her cage was no longer a prison; it was an Old Bunny Home protecting her from the bears and coyotes who prowl our mountains. Without us she probably wouldn’t have survived two days.
Also Bananacake’s mood was different. No longer filled with youthful resentment, she became wise and neurotic, like an aging Jewish novelist.
Yesterday I finished a head of lettuce. I gnawed a bit at the stem but couldn’t eat it all, so I dropped the rest in the compost bucket, and I suddenly missed Bananacake. When she was alive, I could have brought the lettuce stem out to her, and she would’ve torn it from my fingers with a brutal selfishness, pulling it into her wooden-box home to savor. It’s lucky to have a creature who’ll eat your garbage with delight.