Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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My father and brother constructed the trap in the basement workshop. I followed them to the forest behind the barn, where they would set it. We lived on a thirteen-acre farm called Merryview, where we raised horses — hunters, jumpers, and Shetland ponies — along with other animals.
My brother was tensed with excitement as they assembled the trap under the pines, practicing how it would snap, resetting it with pride.
That night I cried myself to sleep.
The next day my father held up a limp white rabbit by her ruff, her pink-tipped teats streaming with milk that hit the dust like white raindrops. He tossed her on the stump where he did his executions. The ax severed her spinal cord with a pop.
My father presented me with her lucky rabbit’s foot. “The real deal,” he called it because he’d “made” it. I could feel her sweet bones, move them apart, flatten them out, look at her nails, find their quick.
“Now you have an actual one,” he said proudly.
“I don’t want it,” I said, shoving it at him. I needed to wash my hands.
“Oh, Janie,” he said. “You can hang keys on it.”
“I’m a kid.”
He looked down at me with a familiar mix of exasperation and pity. “Why are you always like this? You make yourself so unhappy.”
He reached to ruffle my hair, to say there were no hard feelings; I shrank. I had spent two days tearing at the ground around the trap under the pine, digging with a kitchen spoon, now twisted, trying to find the rabbit’s babies. I still had a pill bottle full of milk and an eyedropper in my pocket ready for them. My fingernails were filthy and broken; I was dirty up to my armpits. I had listened for them, but all I’d heard was the groan of branches, the birds in the canopy.
What did starvation feel like?
“Jane, you have to stop being so squeamish,” my father said, gripping my wrist. “Come, come with me.”
I didn’t want to.
In his basement workshop he took the rabbit’s other rear foot apart to show me ulna, carpus, metacarpus — the skeletal structure that had once allowed her to hop. I wanted to say a metacarpus in a rabbit’s foot on a forest floor was worth two under his box cutter and pliers.
Whenever my family was being cruel to animals, they said, “Keep that away from Janie,” or, “Whatever you do, don’t let Janie see that.”
That night my mother said to my father, “See what you’ve done, Alex? Look at her. See what you’ve done?”
Anytime I found a robin’s egg — turquoise treasure of the hedgerow, blue gift of spring — it was almost always shattered, the nestlings missing. I took unbroken eggs home and set them in an empty aquarium under a heat lamp, that yellow zzzzing bulb, eyedropper ready beside the glass to feed them mushed-up worms from the morning green lawn. They didn’t hatch into anything.
When I was just two, I had wandered from the sandbox while my mother answered the telephone. My disappearance caused a hullabaloo. It brought trucks and sirens, firemen and police.
“Janie, we thought you’d drowned,” my mother said years later. “They told us you were dead. We were making plans to dredge the pond to find your body. We were talking about your funeral.”
They’d found me wedged between an unused exterior door and a screen door. I remember things: how the rusted screen crumbled under my fingers; the part of the screen door that was soft, into which I could push my pudgy fingers.
There had been a body once in our pond, a teenage boy whose leg had gotten caught in the reeds. I didn’t know what he had looked like, but I still saw him in my dreams, his yellow-green face canted toward sunlight and air, his eyes surprised that he had breathed water.
My father worked at his family’s dairy in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, and my mother stayed at home. When she and I ran errands in the Comet, we passed a mink farm: rows of cages, brown weasel-like animals slinking up branches.
I wanted my mother to stop so I could get close, but she said, “Ew, no, Janie, they’re vicious. They got in the chicken coop and killed the hens — and not to eat, either, just for the joy of a bloodbath.”
I couldn’t believe there was an animal that was bad by default. I didn’t believe it. “Why are they there?”
“The farmer sends the pelts out to make fur coats.”
“He kills them?” I shrieked.
My mother chuckled. “Where do you think fur comes from, Jane?”
I had never considered it before. I huddled down in the backseat with my hands over my head.
To get the down in the jacket, in the pillow, geese were beheaded.
To get the leather for our shoes, cows’ throats were slit.
Pigs were used to make garbage bags.
Cows were used to make crayons.
When I was six, I became suddenly bald. The shame was great. There was no explanation. For the year my pate was noodle clean, my mother refused to take me out in public. “Get away,” she said, flicking her hand at me. “You’re too ugly to look at.” She took no pictures of me — and wouldn’t let anyone else take them, either, making sure I was out sick for school photographs.
I had alopecia totalis — a complete loss of hair on the head — but no one knew anything about autoimmune disorders in those days. The doctor prescribed ointment, and my mother sewed corduroy baby bonnets to tie under my chin all through first grade. These singled me out as deficient, a loser, a mark.
I learned to hide. Become small. Maybe when I could fit through the opening in a rabbit burrow, I would finally be small enough.
I found a baby thrush I named Daisy, and I carried her home against my heart. She’d tumbled from a nest, Mom said, and hurt her leg. But look! She could hop! We tried to feed her milk; it oozed from her nostrils. I tucked her in the box my saddle shoes had arrived in, punching holes in the lid, wadding paper for a nest, and dropping in two pink, squirming worms. In bed I let her out of her box, and she peeped, opening her beak while I dropped in a worm. Then I curled around her, to protect and warm her, and tried not to let sleep overcome me.
In the morning my father found her under my arm, her box overturned on the floor, poop on my sheets, and the other worm missing, and he decreed that Daisy needed to live in the tack house. “Oh, no, no!” I said, but negotiating got me nowhere, and the next morning, when my father opened the tack-room door, he accidentally rolled its bottom edge over Daisy. She must have smelled fresh air and fluttered over, hungry. I imagined what it felt like to be flattened. Poor Daisy’s legs stuck out straight instead of folding into her body. That night I twined myself around her empty box.
I didn’t disagree with my bullies. I was everything they called me: bucktoothed and bald-ugly and smeared in stinking ointment; a baby who wore a bonnet that tied under my chin to school every damned day. Worse, I sat in the smart row because I could read.
They picked me third-to-last for gym. Only the other bald kid (why was he bald? I didn’t know) and the kid with crutches got picked after me.
After school the bullies tackled me, and I skidded through the gravel. My knee, my face, and the heel of my hand bled. Their faces were red and fierce, and their shoes had hard outsoles as they kicked me. When the bullies peeled off, I sat up and picked gravel from the open wounds. Finally I got shakily to my feet, pulling up my thin, worn knee socks. My saddle shoes were scuffed. My tormenters spilled, laughing, onto the street.
Once the bullies were out of sight, I felt good. I felt renewed. Those were the moments I was safest — standing, wobbly, my cuts stinging, sure I wouldn’t be attacked again because they were done with me for the day.
I didn’t talk to anyone about being bullied. When my mother asked me about my scrapes and bruises, I only shrugged. It was just something that happened. I learned that if I gave in, I was in a stronger position than if I fought, which the kids saw as an invitation.
Come February, as I handed out requisite Valentine’s Day cards to every kid who beat me up, I would have been just as happy for the cards to say, Pound me. Make me hurt. Because if I broadcast the sense that I didn’t care, it took the fun out of it for them.
I was not very old when my father beheaded every goose in our flock. Over and over he flung a goose, honking fearfully to the last, over the stump near the barn. We’d once had a chicken coop and cheerful hens. That flock, too, had been beheaded, but thankfully I didn’t remember it. He tossed limp goose corpses into a wheelbarrow that often transported manure. When he was through, he plucked them until those geese were as bald as I was.
He tried to show me how, but seeing the birds beheaded had left me in shock. I took a hank of feathers and pulled unconvincingly.
“Against the grain,” he said, and he enveloped my hand in his before tugging hard.
My father told me to gather the goose heads, but I was loath to touch them. He said, “Do it, Jane,” so I gathered a bloody mountain of heads that looked at me.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Later I sat at the kitchen table, polishing horse brasses — decorations for harnesses. We kept the brasses all over the farm: above the telephone, in the feed room of the barn, in the tack house. Underneath me was the local newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, open to the wedding announcements. I dripped polish onto brides’ faces.
My mother was busy with flashing knives, bones cracking while mounds of goose offal piled up on the counters, smelling of grease and blood. She loved animals, so I didn’t understand how she could do this. She told me to get up and help. I stood on my brother’s chair and, out of curiosity, lifted an intestine full of poop. My mother slapped my hand. She rolled the goose pieces into pink paper bundles and tied them with string. “They taste like chicken,” my mother said.
I picked up a goose heart, held it on my open palm, wrapped my fingers around it. An hour earlier it had been beating, probably while chasing my brother, whom the geese had hated.
“I can’t make you eat them,” she said, dumping the still-warm carcasses into a freezer bin.
“Well, I won’t,” I confirmed. “I won’t.”
“I just fell off the monkey bars,” I said to the teacher, holding my elbow.
The guilty children could barely contain their glee.
“Is that what happened?” Mrs. K. asked one of them.
“Yes!” he cried.
Later my mother questioned me about the bullies.
“They laugh ’cause of my baby bonnets.” I held out the one that had gotten wrecked when I’d fallen.
“Well, Janie,” my mother said.
“You laugh,” I said.
She planted a kiss on my nose and tugged another hat firmly over my skull. Was there an endless supply of them? “That’s because you’re so . . . easy.”
My father lifted me up to see over the edge of the rendering vat. A horse leg, the hoof still attached, floated in the red, bubbling froth. Just under the water a horse’s head looked up at me: a brown eye, lashes curling, its mane sweeping the surface.
I didn’t know killdeers would feign broken wings to lead predators away from their nests. I’d never seen a killdeer before, though I’d heard them. It was Saturday, and my younger sister and I, looking for something to do, had ended up at the schoolyard. We knelt to help the bird, wondered how we could carry her home. We heard the sound of a man’s voice and looked up. He loomed over us, trench coat flapping open on one side.
“Wrap her in these,” he said, and I took the underwear he held out: white cotton men’s briefs. They would work, I guessed, but I was confused about where they’d come from.
The killdeer flew toward the schoolyard fence.
The man lurched toward us, and I grabbed my sister’s hand and shouted, “Run!” We didn’t stop until we were halfway down the path where I usually got beaten up. Doubled over and breathing hard, we checked over our shoulders.
“Run!” I shouted again when he appeared behind us.
And we ran.
I got pulverized at school with tedious regularity until, in the spring of third grade, we had sports day, and I discovered I could not only run but launch myself over a high jump better than girls several years older than I was.
“You’re a flying bullet,” said my teacher as she squeezed my shoulder and gave me ribbons.
My report cards were all A’s. I always asked for double homework, because who wanted to go outside to play after dinner? There were always bullies — if not the ones from school, then my brother’s friends. I stuck close, sitting on the back steps.
I kept a broken-winged hawk, Hawkeye, in a huge cage my father had constructed.
At the butcher shop my mother bought liver wrapped in wax paper. She opened the package above the sink. “So Hawkeye has iron,” she said. The blood ran down the wax, dripping. Every night my father made me set traps in the feed bin to catch mice; every morning, while tears rolled down my cheeks, I brought the hatchet down to chop off their heads.
“We’ll toughen you up yet,” my father said.
“If Hawkeye caught a mouse in the wild,” I said, “he’d eat the head.” Hawkeye pooped bones; you could take a stick to his poop pellets and find miniature tibias.
Hawkeye opened his beak to me as if yawning, and I tossed in the day’s beheaded mouse.
The liver, though, wet and bloody as if it had just fallen out of the cow, shivered on my palm. Hawkeye dove from his tree-bough perch with a scream, so fast I almost couldn’t pull my hand away.
My father said I should feed Hawkeye a rabbit. “I’ll catch one. You need to stop being so sensitive. What do you think life will be like for you if you stay like this? What do you suppose lies ahead for you?”
I might always be bald? I might always get trounced?
I went to the forest and kicked over my father’s trap. He erected a new one. I kicked it down, too. But he won. He put up a third trap and didn’t tell me. He marched me to the hawk’s enclosure, retrieved a rabbit he’d caught, and threw it down on the grass.
Dad moved his knife around its scruffy brown neck and started tugging its skin down. He slipped the knife between the pelt and carcass when he encountered resistance. Then he stood behind me and put his huge, bloody hands around mine and made me do it.
I stripped that rabbit bare.
A couple of weeks after I fed Hawkeye the rabbit, my father declared the hawk’s wing healed, and we opened his cage door for good. I was bitter: If we had been planning to release him soon, why did we have to feed him a rabbit? All of us watched Hawkeye hop to the door, spread his wings, and launch. He rose in widening circles above us, high into the sky, until he was a speck.
When my hair grew back (alopecia is often unpredictable), my mother kept it short, thinking the weight of longer hair might cause it to fall out again. Now that I had hair, I was rarely bullied. When I switched schools in grade seven, the kids set upon me once with a hail of snowballs wrapped around rocks. I bled from my cheek and head, but I kept walking. I didn’t call out or cry. I didn’t look at them. I didn’t tell on them.
I didn’t mind the pain. Not that much.
They grew bored, and I was free.
My brother went hunting with my father and grandfather every winter. I saw their checkered coats, their snowshoes, their Daniel Boone raccoon hats with tails. My brother came home looking pleased, color high in his cheeks, Dad patting him on the back as they held up a rack of antlers and a beaver tail, both red where they’d been severed from the animals’ bodies. They hammered a nail through the tail and hung it outside. It smelled like fish. I eyed it warily every day when I came home from school, wishing I could meet the beaver it had belonged to, wondering how much her family missed her. Eventually I brought myself to touch it. The tail was scaly, thick. My brother and father made a plaque for the antlers and hung them in my brother’s bedroom.
Skipper was a Holstein, the youngest of three calves that my father bought in an attempt to teach his children a lesson in economics. We would raise them and later sell them at a profit, investing it in new cattle, and so on. I held the nipple of the repurposed milk bottle to Skipper’s young mouth as I cradled his heavy head on my lap and memorized the swirls of hair on his forehead — a cowlick! on a cow! His brown eyes stared into my blue ones; milk bubbled and dripped onto my pants. I had warmed the milk in a saucepan before pouring it through a funnel into the bottle. By proxy I was his mama.
It was remotely possible that the milk he drank had been milked from his own mother at our dairy.
Skipper was a deeply sad little calf who bawled piteously and continuously. I pitchforked his cow patties out of his pen and lay down in the straw with him.
I fed the other two calves impatiently. They gripped the nipple between their fat tongues and the roofs of their mouths, and the milk ran down their throats. I gave them rubdowns to aid in circulation and so they would know the pleasure of contact with another creature. Then I snuck back to Skipper.
Oh, Skipper! I had fallen in love like a girl for a boy. I would have been happy to have Skipper on my arm at a school dance. I begged my mother to let me bunk in the barn while he was needy, but she refused. I could hear him bawling as I struggled to fall asleep. I slammed the window shut and pulled the drapes and put my hands over my ears.
“He’ll get over it,” my mother said at breakfast when I called her cruel.
Skipper thrived. When I came to the barn, he rubbed his head up and down my skinny hip to soothe both of us. He spent time now with the other calves, and I let the three of them out, as per my father’s instructions, into the spring field to graze.
When I was nine, my parents began a process of trial separations. Two years later, in preparation for their divorce, they began to sell the animals they owned: first our Shetland ponies, then the horses. One day I was supposed to stay at school for lunch, but I made the mistake of coming home to visit Skipper and saw the calves being loaded into the back of a van: the sound of their hooves on the metal ramp; the flick of Skipper’s orange tail; his caterwauling as the gate closed behind them and the truck powered up. I ran to find my parents. My father was home from work, and I yelled at him to save Skipper.
“It’s for the best, Jane,” he said. “Come inside now.”
It was not for the best.
It was for veal.
My father moved out, and my mother bought two dozen ducklings and a blue wading pool. She upended fruit baskets for the ducks to use as steps: twenty-four white ducks shoveling up vast quantities of seed with their beaks, then waddling onto the baskets and launching themselves over the edge with wiggling tails and honks. But one duck didn’t thrive. Everything was wrong with it: lumps on its beak, feathers falling out, a cloud over one of its eyes.
My mother handed it to me and said, “It has to be culled.”
Culled? What was culled?
“It has to be killed so it doesn’t infect the rest of them.”
I shook my head, pulled the duck close.
“Do you want the other ducks to get sick?”
It seemed to me the other ducks were going to die anyhow. Mom didn’t put them inside overnight. They’d experience painful deaths in the mouths of dogs, raccoons, or coyotes. I asked how I would kill a duck.
“Fill up a bucket of water and drown it.”
I ran water into a bucket around the corner, where the other ducks wouldn’t see, and I brought the sick duck over. It was like a loaf of bread in my hands, white and fluffy. I set it down on the grass, where it quacked. “I can’t do it, Mom.” Maybe the duck wasn’t even that sick. Maybe what it had wasn’t communicable.
“Go get your mean friend, then. She’ll do it.”
I went and got my friend, and I squatted beside the bucket while she held the duck’s beak closed and its body underwater as it thrashed for its life and bubbles rose.
On my twelfth birthday that summer, during visitation at my father’s apartment, he presented me with a rabbit muff. The outside was the pelt of the white rabbit he and my brother had caught, sewn up with others just like it. And the inside, where I would theoretically rest my hands, was the pelt of the brown rabbit I’d fed to Hawkeye, the pelt I had ripped from her still-warm body.
I appreciate the thoughtful pieces you’ve published about animals and our interactions with them, especially Eaton Hamilton’s essay “Skinning the Rabbit” [July 2017].
For five years my husband and I kept animals for meat, eggs, and dairy on our organic farm. We saw firsthand that animals have feelings, thoughts, relationships, and curiosity about the world. Raising livestock was emotionally taxing work, and eventually we shut down that side of our operation. My husband explained to our disappointed customers, “When we do our job wrong, animals die. When we do our job right, animals eventually die.”
He and I still struggle with how to reconcile our consumption of animal products with our view of ourselves and animals as co-inhabitants of the world.
Eating and living right in this world is hard.
Eaton Hamilton’s essay “Skinning the Rabbit” [July 2017] was both beautifully written and difficult to read. The cruelty Hamilton endured — witnessing the beheading of animals, the skinning of rabbits, and the loss of her beloved cow — made me respect this resilient little girl. Humans often fail to realize that the animals we kill have emotions, families, and societies much like our own.