Creative Nonfiction from Cate Hodorowicz

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On Cate Hodorowicz:

Cate Hodorowicz’s essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Arts & Letters. She has also recently reviewed poetry and/or prose for The Rumpus, Hippocampus, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. In 2017, she received a Pushcart Prize, and this summer she attended the Kenyon Writers Workshop as a Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellow.


Chasing Rabbits

Chasing Rabbits appeared in Issue 34

The first time I saw The Cottontail Rabbit Among Dry Grasses and Leaves, I was sitting at my kitchen table with an enormous old book. Its pages from 1909 were thin and fragile and cream colored, save for the thick and satiny white sheets upon which colored plates—one of them the cottontail—were printed. I had been looking forward to this book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, for quite some time and was thrilled to have it in hand, but when I came across this watercolor rabbit, a deep tunnel emerged behind my eyes and grew down into my chest, belly, and legs. I had to place my hands on the table to steady myself.

At first, I thought this reaction had something to do with what seemed to me the painting’s perfection. Its neutral and delicate palette—ecru, café-au-lait, hints of mahogany and chestnut—appear flawless, and the gentle textures of autumn leaves, rabbit fur, and one glossy, chocolate eye make the painting seem weightless. Positioned on the diagonal, the rabbit faces left, in profile, neither fully alert nor fully at ease: the chocolate eye is like velvet, the delicate ears turned back but not fully flush with the rabbit’s back. The creature rests among parchment-colored grasses, a few spindly twigs, and fallen, curled leaves Novemberish in their absence of color—ghostly, as if they have nearly reached disintegration. But disintegration, the folding back into the earth from which the leaves came, is far from melancholy. Rather, the ethereal leaves seem to hold the cottontail aloft as the rabbit’s white, then biscuit-colored, then tawny fur blends into the background.

Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom is the lifework of Abbott Handerson Thayer, a nineteenth-century portrait artist and naturalist who developed some of the first color theories behind camouflage, which of course is the patterning that allows animals and insects to blend into their surroundings. The book is not Abbott Thayer’s alone, however; his son, Gerald, is the author of record, and many of Abbott’s artist friends and family contributed to the paintings. The cottontail, for example, was painted by Gerald, while Thayer’s second wife, Emma, completed some of the background. You would never know it, though; the watercolor seems to be of one hand.

As I sat there at the kitchen table, a bit dizzy and perplexed, it became clear that The Cottontail Rabbit Among Dry Grasses and Leaves had done something to me, reminded me of a history of rabbits, of the sensation of small rabbits in my hands, the role of rabbits in my family and how and why I am here on the earth. And in those moments at the table, those memories came together strangely, far less unified than the composition of that lovely cottontail.

*

Perhaps the easiest way to begin is with a happy story. A moment when I was a child of eight and the world was still gilded with sunlight. My pet rabbit had birthed kits, and my younger brothers and I made elaborate stories with the babies: the white rabbit became the princess, the black rabbit the prince, the three brown rabbits their servants and footmen and evil doers. Gilded in sunlight, indeed: we were outside, it was summer, and we contained the kits in a wheelbarrow or created elaborate mazes for them on the picnic table. The rabbits had no fear of us, so we cuddled them in our hands, against our cheeks, and wished for them never to grow up.

But they did, of course, grow up, and as they grew, we lost interest. Even though the rabbits lived just steps from our back door, in a plywood and wire cage alongside the old barn, we took them out rarely once summer turned to fall and we returned to school. Too, the rabbits changed from placid babies to unruly adolescents. They bucked and squirmed when we tried to hold them; sometimes they tried to bite. They refused to stay contained in the wheelbarrow, and so they spent more time in the cage.

By winter, the rabbits had grown up and were no longer easily lovable, so I visited them only at feeding time. We lived in western New York, where the lake effect snow is such a part of life that children grow up with snow shovels in their hands—or at least my brothers and I did. One weekend afternoon, I noticed from the kitchen window my father in the snowdrifts in the middle of the day by the rabbit hutch. It seemed odd because he never tended the rabbits; that was my job. When I asked my mother what he was doing, she said, Nothing. Come make some cookies. So I did.

Later that day, I bundled up in snow pants and boots and went out to play and feed the rabbits. Huddled together in the back of the hutch were some but not all of my bunnies. The three brown ones were gone. Puzzled, I went back inside where my mother was still in the kitchen.

Where are Hippo and the others? I asked.

Honey, there were too many rabbits, my mother said. Dad had to get rid of some.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, and I’m not interested in blaming my parents or suggesting that the loss of three rabbits scarred me. We weren’t a farming family; the rabbits were pets, though somewhat neglected. My brothers and I, we hadn’t been prepared or told. The deed was just done. Part of me, the rational part, knows that if my parents had told me they planned to dispatch my rabbits, I would have put up a fight and carried on like a banshee. Too, if my parents had chosen a different route and given the rabbits away, the animals would likely have met a similar fate. But the irrational part of me, the part that is sentimental and remembers the soft warmth of kits in my hand, cannot bear the memory of rabbit stew. And though I want to and know I should put all of this behind me, I find that I can’t quite come to terms with what felt like my parents’ betrayal—that they would kill a creature I had loved and then put it on a plate and expect me to eat.

*

Here is where you need to know more about my father’s life, so that you might see why I so dearly want and need to resolve the conflict I have about those three rabbits and my reaction to their demise. My father was born to a single Polish Catholic woman in a German forced labor camp in 1944, and when he was six months old, he and his mother barely survived the bombing of the munitions factory where she worked. Afterward, from April to July 1945, conditions in postwar Germany were so violent, chaotic, and abysmal that a German woman offered to take my father and raise him as her own. My grandmother considered it; his survival would be more certain. But she said she would never be at peace if she gave up her son. And so, for the next nine years, she raised my father and the three other children who came after him in refugee camps, first in Germany and later in France. My father in photos from those years is always serious; it seems there was no play or lightness in him. In a class picture in France in 1951, he appears to be the poorest child in the group: his hair shorn with what must have been kitchen scissors, his thin, pale face wistful and distant, and his clothes ill-fitting, ragged, made of coarse cloth that looks something like burlap.

In France, his mother kept rabbits as a source of food and income. She gardened, too, and had a few chickens, the occasional goose. She had been raised the daughter of a peasant farmer, and there was no sentimentality in her when it came to animals and survival. When she needed help with immigration paperwork, she paid the priest with rabbit skins.

As my father got older, he helped kill the chickens and geese. I don’t know about the rabbits. But even children raised in poverty love animals. My father’s brother told me a story about those years in France. The boys had found a litter of kittens. They were the cutest things, my uncle said. When their father learned about the kittens, though, practicality intruded. Kittens would grow into cats, there were no scraps to spare, and hungry cats would hunt his wife’s chicks and kits. So my grandfather gathered the kittens in a sack, and with the boys trailing after him, he walked to a bridge that overlooked the canal. I can still see that bag arcing over the water, my uncle said. And my daddy, he had tears in his eyes.

I try to remember stories like this one when I wrestle with the memory of my three brown rabbits. My father’s childhood was harsh and practical, nothing like my own, and his experiences explain much about why he killed my rabbits and asked my mother to use them for dinner. Too, now that I have children myself, I understand there are things we do as parents that we don’t want to do but that we see as necessary and adult.

In the first year that I started keeping chickens, one of my snow-white laying hens developed an infection. My daughters had named her Pearl, and they had hand-raised her from a chick. Even now that she was full-grown, they still loved to carry her around the yard. Despite much doctoring, Pearl did not improve, and when she refused to eat and drink for the third day in a row, my husband and I decided on a coup de grace as the most humane choice. At the time, the girls were five and seven, so we set them up with a movie while we went outside to do the deed. It was a beautiful summer day. Dread girdled my stomach; I had never participated in the killing of a creature I had raised. But I wrapped the hen in an old towel, told her she was a good girl, and held her still on the picnic table while my husband aimed and fired two quick pellets into her little brain.

Blood spattered on the weathered picnic table, and as the bird shook in my hands, my daughters burst out of the back door, the eldest child screaming That is so wrong!

The movie hadn’t held them, and they had watched what we had done.

It took hours to console the children. I didn’t cry that day, but I wanted to. It reminds me that when a parent undertakes an unpleasant chore, she doesn’t always show her children the depth of the unpleasantness. But sometimes she does. Or at least begins to. In 1941, my grandfather was taken from his home in Poland, thrown into forced labor, later jailed and beaten for black market dealings, and after the war moved to France where he couldn’t speak the language. Yet he found tears for kittens. Or maybe the tears were for himself, that he felt it necessary to do a terrible thing. Or maybe he did not like causing pain to his sons. Maybe his tears contained all of these things and more.

*

The other night as I sewed up a hole in Bun-Bun, my youngest daughter’s large and gray stuffed rabbit, the movement of needle and thread through synthetic fur brought me back to a laboratory hidden away in a basement warren of a building where, during the day, I attended undergraduate lectures upstairs. One of my professors, a man with many degrees who I wanted to impress, had invited me to see his research on craniosynostosis, a defect in some children whose skull plates grow together too quickly and don’t allow for brain growth. But the professor hadn’t told me what to expect in his lab.

Suddenly there I was, faced with cages and cages of many white rabbits of all ages and sizes. Some were kits of the sort I’d had as a child and played with for hours, making up those stories of prince and princess rabbits. All of the rabbits in the lab, the professor explained, were bred for craniosynostosis. His work with the animals, he hoped, would lead to improved surgeries and treatments for children.

He showed me the experimental surgical process on a kit whose ears were the length of the first segment of my little finger. The rabbit had a vertical slice down its forehead, and the wound was clean and straight, a length of perhaps an inch and a half. Embedded in the cut was a tiny device that kept the rabbit’s skull plates apart so that the brain had room to grow.

If I’m remembering this the right way, the professor said the rabbit’s head needed sewing up, and did I want to do it. I said yes, though my experience with sewing had only been with cloth, not flesh. The professor started the suture, showed me how to place the needle under one flap of skin, come out the top, and then dive the needle underneath the other side, emerging through flesh again, and move back to the other side. I can’t forget that warm creature in my hand, the brief resistance of flesh against needle, the slightly disturbing friction of thread pulling through skin, the creature quiet and subdued to the strange and most likely painful process. There was no anesthetic, at least not that I remember. Yet I wouldn’t trade those moments, the sensations, the slight confused pride I felt when my professor raised his eyebrows. You’ve never sutured? he asked. I shook my head and continued the sewing, slowly. You’re good, he said. There was the suggestion beneath the tone of his voices that a nineteen-year-old girl rarely had the stomach or steady hands for animal experimentation. But I hadn’t known what I was walking into, or at least I hadn’t thought about it. And when the opportunity presented itself and this man acted as if the research and the rabbits were as precious as a long-lost piece of art, I found myself in thrall, too. But the thing I most remember was a sense of wonder and sadness—wonder that this kind of work was possible, this research life-saving. And sadness that all of this good required such harm.

In the years since, my sewing has been limited entirely to toys. And I can’t bring myself to tell my daughter how I know to stitch her gray rabbit so carefully and so well.

*

I wonder about Abbott Thayer, and what he thought of the harm he brought to animals he loved. In order to study the creatures he painted, he had to kill them. Birds, in particular. His son, Gerald, acknowledged this by sometimes painting birds not alive, but deceased, on a white background. Those paintings, not found in Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, suggest that a creature must be divorced from its life if we are to fully explore and understand that creature. The Thayers’ practices aren’t dissimilar from da Vinci’s dissection of about thirty human bodies, which led to the first accurate illustrations of the human heart. Advancement of ourselves is done at the expense of other creatures. There seems to be no growth without pain. One summer my eldest daughter’s knees swelled because she was growing so fast. For weeks, it hurt her to walk.

*

I couldn’t see as a child the problem with chasing rabbits around our yard, though I was happy enough to judge my father for his butchering. I can’t recall if we chased the rabbits before or after that event, or perhaps it was both. But on some evenings in fair weather, Dad would say Let’s chase rabbits, which was our way of giving the usually caged creatures exercise. Dad would then take a rabbit from the hutch and place it in the grass. For a while, we left the rabbit alone as it nibbled greenery. Sometimes the lowering sun caught its ears, illuminating pink skin and red capillaries so that the ears became translucent lavender velvet.

As dusk fell and we needed to get the rabbit back to its hutch, of course the rabbit didn’t want to be put inside. One of us made a move to bend down and wrap our hands around the rabbit’s wide, soft midsection, but the rabbit skittered off fast, and the chase was on: through the yard, under the pines, around the rabbit hutch, through my mother’s garden. It was, at the time, great sport—my brothers and my father and me running and laughing and shrieking as we tried to capture the rabbit. I didn’t consider, back then, that our chase must have felt like a hunt to the little beast, that fear motivated its frantic sprints and skids and hairpin turns.

*

There is another story about chasing rabbits, and this one, in a way, involves my grandfather during the war years, long before France, the kittens, and his wife’s rabbit hutch. My aunt, the keeper of family lore, recorded a story her mother told her about the last weeks before the Allies began pouring into Germany. Air raids bombarded the country, obliterating infrastructure and cutting off supply lines. At the time, my grandmother and grandfather were Polish forced laborers who worked for the same large munitions company, but their barracks and job assignments were several miles apart in a northern town called Unterlüß. One day many of the male laborers, including my grandfather, were loaded into cattle cars destined for a different camp in Celle, twenty miles south. Germany was desperate for labor toward the end of the war: it had exhausted the population of Eastern Europe and killed through starvation and hard labor so many people that the Reich could no longer sustain production of weaponry, bombs, and machinery. As a result, the laborers who remained in late 1944 and early 1945 were moved around the country like chess pieces.

The next part of the story my grandfather later shared with my grandmother, who shared it with my aunt, and it seems my grandfather’s journey went something like this: on the way to Celle, my grandfather’s train stopped in a rail yard. No one came to open the cars. No guards came to bark orders. Through the boxcar’s wooden slats, my grandfather saw many other train cars full of men.

After a while, the men in my grandfather’s car grew restless, concerned. I don’t know how long they waited, or if they waited for nightfall or not. But there was nothing to eat, it was cold, and everyone feared the air raids. In the car with my grandfather and the other men was a small boy. It wasn’t uncommon for the Nazis to use children for intricate factory work; their small fingers were nimbler and more trainable than adults’. The men pushed the boy through the wooden slats (he must have scraped the skin from his spine), the boy unlocked the boxcar, and the men spilled out. But before they scattered, they unlocked all of the other boxcars, and what must have been thousands of men went running as far from the trains as they could. They were, for the moment, safe from bombs, but not from anything else. As foreign laborers, it was illegal to be on the run, a killing offense, so my grandfather returned, most likely on foot, to Unterlüß .

I didn’t think too much about this story and its connection to rabbits until I read in my research something else that happened in Celle around the same time. In that spring of 1945, forced laborers weren’t the only ones being packed into cattle cars and moved across the Reich. The Nazis were desperate to get rid of the human evidence of their depravity, and so they marched or shipped concentration camp prisoners to locations with gas chambers and ovens. One of the prisoners was my grandmother’s sister, Hanka, who in the last months of the war trudged through the snow on a death march from Auschwitz, but that is a story for another time. Elsewhere, four thousand concentration camp inmates had been loaded into freight cars destined for Bergen-Belsen, just fifteen miles north of Celle. When the train stopped in the Celle rail yard, the people waited in their boxcars, much as my grandfather had done. But this time guards patrolled the length of the train, and no one slipped themselves or a child through the slats.

On the next set of rails sat another train, but this one was loaded with ammunition rather than human cargo.

Then, the air raid my grandfather had feared for himself happened for these people: Allied bombs fell onto the ammunition train and the cattle cars. The people who didn’t perish in the firestorm began to run—of course they did—away from the trains, the flames, the bodies, the smoke, the additional bombs that were sure to fall. How they managed to run, as sickly and malnourished as they must have been, I don’t know. But fear can make people run as easily as it can cause them to hide. The people ran toward a small forest. They ran out of instinct and self preservation. They ran too away from their guards, who aimed and fired at the escapees. But the guards weren’t the only ones giving chase. It seems that citizens living in Celle joined in, too. And so began the Celle Hasenjagd, or the Celle hare chase, in which the guards, party officials, state police, and town residents hunted down and captured or killed the train victims. There was no camouflage for the prisoners in their ratty, boldly striped clothing.

Celle was not unique in its brutality; hasenjagds happened elsewhere in Germany as the war came to a close. I wonder if anyone doing the hunting was exhilarated, curious, trying to prove him or herself. I wonder if any of them crouched and examined the other person, watched their dilated pupils and heaving chest. If they saw anything worth saving.

Sometimes I think freedom carries an element of fear. When you are free—suddenly released from the cage, the cattle car, the prison—what do you do? Where do you go? Where can you seek shelter, or some kind of cover, maybe just a pine branch under which to hunker, because in the wide open space of your new freedom, you’re suddenly vulnerable.

I wonder sometimes if in another time and place, to please someone, I could also find exhilaration in chasing down and harming a person. This, perhaps, is something of that dark tunnel that built itself behind my eyes when I saw Abbott’s painting of the cottontail. It was a gorgeous rendering of a creature I had loved as a child, though now as an adult, I have been trying to accept the brutality visited upon those creatures because acceptance seems the enlightened thing to do.

One night years ago during one of our rabbit chases, I managed to corner a black rabbit under a pine tree. He (for all our black rabbits over the years were male) pressed his backside against the sap-riddled trunk and crouched in the brown needles and soft earth. He seemed to think that if he didn’t move, the shadows and low-hanging branches might conceal him and send me searching elsewhere. Instead, I watched his flaring nostrils and bulging eyes, the long ears pressed flat against his head. His sides heaved from the effort of running, hiding, and responding to the furious firing of synapses and adrenaline. Of course, at age nine or so, I couldn’t have articulated any of these things. I don’t remember having many thoughts at that age; for years, I wasn’t a thinker at all. I just watched, like I watched the rabbit. Then I reached out, closed my hands around the rabbit’s soft middle, and scooped him against my chest. His heart thudded against my fingers.

I got him! I yelled, and presented the rabbit to my father.

 

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