Six Bunnies

Six Bunnies
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In memory of John Prine.

Sasha arrived in mid-October in the sidecar of a Ural two-stroke piloted by a grizzled biker with Snakeman painted on his leathers. Espen stood at end of the dirt road leading into his property, a bolt-action rifle slung over his shoulder. Following a short parley he shook Snakeman’s hand and gave him a fistful of cash. The biker stood straddling his seat and extended an arm to help her exodus. Sasha jumped into Espen’s arms. As the biker tossed over a backpack he growled “Take care, sweet pea” and roared off in a cloud of blue smoke and dust.

She stayed the winter.

Sasha and Espen slept the first morning away. Both awakened when the sun stood high, then promptly re-engaged in the activities of the previous evening. It was not until two bells chimed on the old wall clock that they rose, showered, and began to forage in his well-stocked larder. Sasha, eating dry cereal from the box said, “Espen, I need meat.” He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. She grinned. “Bird or beast, you choose.”

A short time later, as she nestled on the sofa before a roaring fire with a glass of purple wine, a distinct “CRACK” was heard outside. Not shotgun, she mused, having grown up near Boise, not pistol, but rifle. Small caliber. Twenty-two, she suspected. She glided barefoot across the brown rug, enjoying how the surprisingly soft bear fur tickled her foot. The door was open and she paused to listen. Outside Espen stood, steadily plucking a medium-sized bird while tenderly singing to himself, Woke up this morning, put on my slippers, walked in the kitchen and died. And oh what a feeling when my soul went through the ceiling and on up into heaven, I did rise…

Sasha turned to the kitchen and lit the kindling in the firebox of the Wedgewood stove before rummaging for a cast-iron roasting pan and fixings in the refrigerator. She continued the song, When I got there, they did say John it happened thisaway, you slipped upon the floor and hit your head. And all the angels say just before you passed away, that these were the very last words that you said. Please don’t bury me, down in that cold, cold ground. I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around…

The pheasant was heavenly. More firm, flavorful, and lean than any chicken. It was the perfect curative for their lust-fueled hunger. So began the winter of content. Pheasant, duck, goose, blue-grouse, Hungarian partridge; and when the season opened, a fine young deer. Most of these creatures were harvested within a short walk from Espen’s stone and timber enclave. He never used the same gun twice.

Their “lovemaking” (as he insisted they call it), was spontaneous, wild, and mutually fulfilling. She texted her best friend Lonnie: “Fucking like rabbits who dine daily on tiger dick and rhino horn.” Lonnie, being Lonnie, shortened this to FLRWDDOTD&RH. His future messages sometimes consisted of “Still FLRWDDOTD&RH ?” Or if he was in a hurry, “F…H”. One day, when feeling loquacious, he added a rabbit emoji.

Sasha would reply with her own rabbit emojis, generally one to three, and in November added, “If I ever text you six bunnies I have achieved the perfect orgasm and can die happy.” Lonnie, a county lineman who grew more efficient each day as the light dwindled, reduced his queries to a single rabbit and question mark. As the winter holidays approached the average number of her bunnies progressively increased toward three, with an occasional four.

Espen, some thirty-five years her senior, used a flip-phone and rarely texted. He knew of Lonnie, but not the emojis. All the Lonnies in Espen’s life had been women, so Sasha’s constant texting to this Lonnie gave him no qualms. Upon learning weeks later Lonnie was male, Espen shrugged. He was not concerned about Sasha’s other lovers, namely because he was a man of the here and now. She was here, now, and the sex was astounding. For Espen the adoption of emojis for communication was a further sign of societal decay. If he ever were to talk about sex to his friends, which was unlikely, his loyalty to the X-scale would have sufficed. It is safe to say that although he never sent a text with any number of X’s, Sasha was triple-X, and the whole idea of going beyond three never entered his mind.

Sasha’s mind was endlessly active but they both enjoyed the solitude of silence, sometimes not speaking for days. The rhythm of their lives seemed to her much like the endless cycle of ocean tides, always rising resting falling. The stillness of the snow-covered landscape was perhaps her favorite experience – as she rested between moments of intense exercise on his old cross-country skis. Espen no longer skied but watched from the porch like a wooden Indian sentinel when she departed and returned. When John Prine died of the Corona Covid-19 virus in April 2020, they cried together and then listened to all his songs. Singing along, they thanked Prine for the memories, all the while feeling a bit guilty for avoiding the ravages of the virus in their splendid isolation.

Despite the pandemic, Sasha departed suddenly in May. He had expected it for some time, knowing it was her way. Then inexplicably Espen missed an easy target, a young coyote which had foolishly trespassed onto the shore of the alpine lake some two hundred meters from the porch, a certain kill for a marksman of his expertise. No wind, no obstacles, no normal reason for the third eye not to magically appear between the two living eyes as a high-pressure jet of vaporized blood, bone and brain was blasted out the back of the small canine skull. The animal had sat and stared at him. Still as a stone until after the shot rang out, the bright lights in those clever orbs stayed lit as the coyote dashed one fraction of a paw print in front of the second bullet, which also missed.

Curious, but slowed by an old pain, Espen walked to where the animal had stood when he fired the first round. Here was the gnarled juniper tree where it sat, but there were no unseen plants or tiny branches to deflect the bullet. He limped along the escape route, following the paw prints outlined in the sand, and spotted something unusual. Squatting on his heels he poked with a stick then picked up and examined the object. A freshly severed bushy tail of a healthy coyote. He laughed. “Well my friend, I dub thee Bob. Perhaps someday you will give me another chance.” Returning to the veranda, Espen nailed the coyote tail to the cedar door frame and stepped back to admire the décor. He then fired four more rounds from the 22-250 bolt action Weatherby at a target rock. At each shot he adjusted the telescopic scope. It began wildly off, nine inches low, five inches right. Had he bumped the rifle and forgotten it? Certainly, Sasha was a lovely enough distraction to make his mind drift. Firing one last round to ensure its accuracy he turned to the gun room, cleaned the weapon, and placed it lovingly on the rack in its assigned place. The next day, when firing at a wild turkey, he missed again and suspected foul play. This rifle, a single shot .22 with a long heavy target barrel was one of the most accurate in the arsenal. It was fiddled. Sasha. He proceeded to discover she had tinkered with all his guns.

Shooting targets steadily for the next week, Espen put dozens of firearms back on target. How had she done it? Tampering with a scoped rifle was simple enough. Easy as twisting the top on a water bottle, she must have removed the screw caps on the adjustment knobs and changed the aimpoint before re-screwing the caps. But when had she done it? Except for her skiing, they were rarely apart, and when they were, he was most often in the arsenal room. Perhaps when he was sleeping? And what of the many guns which did not have telescopic sights like the .22, and were much harder to monkey-wrench? How had she done those without using his gunsmithing tools, which were locked away? The mystery deepened as each gun was put back into order.

Why had she done it? He did not give that much thought. Sasha was Sasha, an enigma in all things non-carnal. She was gone. He was here. That was that.

The last day of August Espen received a text from an unknown number. TOMORROW. Sasha returned in Snakeman’s sidecar. The same ritual as before repeated itself, although this time no money nor words were spoken. Snakeman crouched on his bike, his face covered with a heavy gaiter. Espen knew Covid-20 now raged, mostly killing teenagers.

Their daily routine returned. Duets of John Prine songs were mixed with other dead artists, for it was a time of mourning. Over the next month Espen could see no visible changes, but sensed Sasha’s movements were nebulously altered. A caution seemed to have entered her posture, even when sleeping. He noticed this minute shift and recalled each of his birthdays at thirty, forty and fifty. Age creeps up on us, he thought, we men. But we feel it coming day by day. Decade by decade. A slow decline and growing collection of minor but manageable strains and pains. And women? He did not know but suspected the opposite. Age hits them suddenly, in a sudden rush, at intervals. Maiden blooming into seductress. Seductress shifting into mother, mother bending into crone. Each transition more radical, more akin to the life cycle of butterfly than bull.

That thought stayed with him throughout mid-September, finally conjuring a long-buried memory – his own abrupt transformation at fifteen. His dad had long preached, “It’s not how you get into trouble, but how you get out.” Trouble with a capital T happened at the end of a long day of chopping wood on his father’s ranch. Exhausted, he briefly lost focus, and the razor-sharp blade obliged, brutally staking him to the tree stump he stood on. The only way to free himself was to grip the wooden haft and jerk it free. Even at a young age Espen knew he probably had only one chance before shock set in. What would happen? Was the artery cut? Would he pass out? Summoning an inner calm, he removed his leather belt and tied a tourniquet around his left ankle. The pain of that simple act nearly caused him to faint, but a sudden fear of falling while imbedded by the axe flashed through his system like a jolt of lightning. He grasped the axe and yanked savagely. In that pitiless moment he became a man. Calf to bull. The same man he was today as his sixtieth birthday approached as Sasha’s signs began to appear.

He said nothing about the guns as they fell back to the earlier routine. If anything, their passion grew as the north wind turned keen and the colossal snow goose migration energized the blue sky with enchanted cross currents of living white. The cacophony of the glorious goose calls served as a perfect symphonic backdrop for their intense lovemaking.

She continued to text Lonnie. The bunnies suddenly becoming four in number, two to four times daily. Lonnie started replying with a like number of happy-face emojis, but after a week or so, reduced his texts to a single smiling wolf per day.

Sasha staged a sixtieth birthday party for Espen on the day the first frost arrived. It was the last day of October. She made decorations and filled balloons but brooded as he prepared a cake. He said nothing about the swell in her belly, but softly remarked “Be kind to yourself, you are too young to worry.”

“And you are too old,” said she.

When the cake finished baking, he set it out to cool and donned a wool shirt and gloves and stepped outside to hunt. He returned shortly with a snow-shoe hare, its brown summer pelt just starting to turn white. Sasha was nowhere to be seen. As he prepared the meal, he knew she would come. He opened a bottle of rare scotch, a special treat enjoyed once a year.

As Espen sat reading, he became aware of the dull throb in the old scar on his left foot. He rubbed it with strong hands. The pain reappeared as regularly as the geese migration, each year since the axe incident. That evening, after dinner and cake she suddenly said, “What was that meat? I have never tasted flesh so divine?”

“Rabbit” he said.

She burst into tears. He embraced her.

Later, after they made love, and long after the final passing goose had honked aloft, Espen stood on the porch. He enjoyed the moon’s reflection on the lake as he sipped the scotch. He had seen this vista many thousands of times but never tired of it. Then the sound came, a yip-yip of a moon-lit coyote sauntering along the shore, pausing to sniff this and that. Espen smiled as he set his glass on porch rail and hefted the ever-present rifle. His smile widened when he realized the beast had no tail. The coyote then sat and looked directly at him. “Goodbye, Bob” he said, squeezing the trigger.

Above the porch in the bedroom, even before the shot rang out, Sasha was radiant and smiling. She imagined Lonnie’s face seeing the six-bunny text she had just sent.

She then laughed out loud on hearing Espen exclaim, “I’ll be damned, she did it again” as Bob scampered unscathed into the night.

The next morning, Sasha was gone. The days drew short, snow fell. Each day he hunted with a new gun, but only the one had been tampered with. Bob did not return. Espen never missed another shot. The pain in his foot faded as spring ran into summer.

As late Autumn creeped in Espen received a text: “Your packages arrive tomorrow.” He checked caller ID, the number was the same as the previous August, which he had logged into his contacts. SNAKEMAN.

The next day a battered pickup truck arrived around noon. Snakeman exited the driver’s seat, his face again swathed in a mask, and moved directly to the passenger door. The truck idled loudly. Espen took two steps forward and Snakeman raised a stiff arm toward Espen, gloved hand extended upward—

BIDE,” he said sharply.

Espen froze. Snakeman opened the passenger door, grabbed two bulky items, rapidly setting them onto the ground next to the truck. Espen’s view was blocked. He remained motionless. Snakeman quickly re-entered the cab of the truck, engaged the transmission, and gunned it, leaving a cloud of dust to settle on a two large boxes: one cardboard, one wood.

Espen waited until the roar of engine had faded, and the magical song of a late-season meadowlark returned. As a warm south breeze rose, his nose crinkled at the rich pungent smell of feces. At that very moment, he heard a soft cry.

In six long strides he was there, just as a tiny hand emerged from a light blue blanket in the wooden box and waved.

*

Tor returned home after a four-year stint in the Marine Corps. He was twenty-two years old but had not seen his father for two years. They kept in touch intermittently on email. Tor’s return would be a surprise for Espen’s eighty-third birthday. So would be the news that he was out of the Corps. His father had gone to great lengths to keep him from enlisting. But fascinated with guns, and a deadly marksman, to avoid the draft and get his choice of duty, Tor voluntarily enlisted on his eighteenth birthday. Now after four years as a sniper, with dozens of confirmed kills, he understood his father urging him to go Navy or Airforce. After a botched suicide attempt, Tor’s last year had been in the psych ward at Walter Reed Hospital, a secret he had kept from Espen.

When Tor arrived home, smoke was coming from the stone chimney, and the front door stood wide open. His training made him pause and observe. He scanned the house and the grounds, finally noticing a strange narrow set of tire marks in the soft dirt that tracked around the side of the house. Curious, he followed, stalking softly as his father had taught him. The tracks ended in a strange contraption, an old-school motorcycle and side car parked on the side of the cabin, just under father’s open bedroom window. And from that window came a duet of pleasant voices in perfect harmony, singing a familiar song,

Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size

Give my stomach to Milwaukee
If they run out of beer
Put my socks in a cedar box
Just to get em out of here

Venus De Milo can have my arms
Look out! I’ve got your nose
Sell my heart to the junk man
And give my love to Rose

But please don’t bury me
Down in that cold, cold ground
I’d rather have em cut me up
And pass me all around

Tor smiled even while wincing, he and Espen had sung that song a thousand times. John Prine, I wish I’d known thee, thought Tor. The song now gave him pain.

Dr. Smith said it was a common symptom of moral injury. “Killing does horrible things to people, Tor. You were trained to be the high hand of righteous justice, and your enemies were all called murderers and scum. But your soul knows the truth: no matter how thin you slice it, its still baloney.”

He still hated Dr. Smith, not because she was full of shit, but because she wasn’t.

A wracking cough from the window broke his reverie, and a primordial fear shot through him. He had heard that cough a dozen times this past year at Walter Reed, and knew it for what it was: the Corona-41 death rattle. He knew instantly Espen was dying, finally falling a victim to the scourge of Tor’s lifetime. His sniper training kicked in. Tor took a deep breath and held it. Exhaled. Then another deep breath. On the third exhale he would go into the house. But before he could take the first step, he heard Espen’s familiar voice singing:

I been thinking lately about the people I meet
The carwash on the corner and the hole in the street
The way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet
I’m wondering if I’m gonna see tomorrow

Tor was shocked into immobility.

Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us and well forgive you
We’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue
And we’ll whistle and go fishing in the heavens

I was in the army but I never dug a trench
I used to bust my nuckles on a monkey wrench
I’d go to town and drink and give the girls a pinch
I don’t think they ever even noticed me

This was the one John Prine tune that father had refused to sing, ever.

Fish and whistle, whistle and fish
Eat everything that they put on your dish
When we get through well make a big wish
That we never have to do this again, again? again?

On my very first job I said thank-you and please
They made me scrub a parking lot down on my knees
Then I got fired for being scared of bees
And they only give me fifty cents an hour

Fish and whistle, whistle and fish
Eat everything that they put on your dish
When we get through we’ll make a big wish
That we never have to do this again, again? again?

Well whistle and go fishing in the heavens
Well whistle and go fishing in the heavens

Tor had discovered it on an old vinyl album, “Bruised Orange.” He knew all the other songs by heart, but not that one. When he started singing at the dinner table, Espen erupted, yelling at top of his voice,

“STOP, STOP, never, ever, sing that song again!”

His eyes flashed in anger as he stomped out into the cold night, the only time in Tor’s memory without a rifle.

When he returned an hour later, Espen was shivering violently, but smiling. Eleven-year-old Tor said solemnly, “Daddy, why?”

Espen replied sadly, “That was your mother’s song, and I will never forgive her.”

Tor said immediately, “Okay, me too,” and gave his father a big hug. It was the only time they ever spoke of her.

Tor only learned her name when he submitted his enlistment papers for the Marine Corps. His dad refused to help, referring cryptically to his own Army service. He refused to speak of it in detail about combat, which only flamed the lad’s interest further. Tor obtained a birth certificate by himself learn his mother’s name: Sasha Stone.

Another wracking cough turned into a fit that lasted a good long minute. Tor was paralyzed until the spat ended. He sprinted into the house, knowing from life-long experience with nine different strains of Corona, that the end was at hand. He tore around the Wedgewood in the kitchen and down the hallway to this father’s bedroom. Slowing to a silent walk, he braced himself for the worst and entered the room.

Espen was standing at the far side of his bed, his back ramrod straight, his hunting clothes, clean, ironed, immaculate. Espen’s full head of salt and pepper hair remained unchanged from Tor’s deepest memories. He was healthy-looking as a mature elk could be, still lean and strong, virtually the same in his eighties as his sixties. Tor felt and surge of joy and relief, his father was not dying.

Tears streaked down Espen’s cheeks. “Hello, Tor,” he said in the old firm voice, glancing quickly down to the startlingly beautiful woman, whose pale, tiny elegant hand he grasped tenderly in his own. Her eyes were closed, breathing shallow, a sheen of sweat on her brow. “Your mother is home, where she belongs.”

Sasha’s lids flickered and looked directly into Tor’s eyes, recognition, then a glimmer of doubt seemed to cloud her vision.

Instinctively, Tor sang:

Mother forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us and we’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other til we both turn blue

And well whistle and go fishing in the heavens
Well whistle and go fishing in the heavens

Sasha’s eyes shone bright. She extended her other hand and slipped to Espen a delicate bracelet, crafted in connected links. Six silver bunnies.

They ate birthday cake at her side.

Sasha did not speak but seemed to listen as Tor told Espen of his time in the suck.

Espen was as talkative as the full moon.

Sasha slipped away just past midnight.

After her last breath Espen close her eyelids and handed Tor a yellowed envelope.

Inside was his birth certificate and a single sheet of handwritten paper.

This is Tor. Covid-21 is killing babies. I can’t stay put. Tor is safe with you. I’ll be back.
XXO, Sasha.

They stood vigil until dawn. Tor faced the sunrise.

“Will this plague ever end?”

Espen grabbed a rifle and offered it to Tor, who turned away empty handed. “Let’s find her a place to rest.”

The stars were fading when they arrived at the line of scrub junipers. Then, no more than fifty yards away, a very fine all-white snowshoe hare hopped out from behind a sage bush. In one smooth motion Espen lifted the rifle and fired.

Tor stared incredulous as the hare scampered away. “How could you miss that shot, Dad?”

Espen sighed, but a twinkle was in his eye.

“Did I ever tell you about Bob?”

DA Borer

About DA Borer

DA Borer roams the shores of the Monterey Bay in California. He is presently a war college professor. DA's prose and poetry appear in The Write Launch, Montana Mouthful, Sonder Midwest, Dragon Poet Review, Rise Up Review, Coffin Bell Journal, the San Antonio Review, and The Perch: a Literary and Arts Journal. If you ask him no questions he can tell you no lies. Keep smiling friends! Contact DA at [email protected]

DA Borer roams the shores of the Monterey Bay in California. He is presently a war college professor. DA's prose and poetry appear in The Write Launch, Montana Mouthful, Sonder Midwest, Dragon Poet Review, Rise Up Review, Coffin Bell Journal, the San Antonio Review, and The Perch: a Literary and Arts Journal. If you ask him no questions he can tell you no lies. Keep smiling friends! Contact DA at [email protected]

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