The neighbor kids liked to play in my backyard because it was the biggest. Only city kids like us could be excited by our rectangle of patchy grass surrounded by neighboring fences, but I thought my backyard was enormous. We played kickball, me and my little siblings, and the neighbor girl, Jaci and hers. We used the corner of the garage as first base, the dirt patch under the swing as second, and the white fence post as third. Over the Goldsmith’s fence was a homerun, but the raspberry bushes were an automatic out.
We kept track of outs but rarely kept track of runs. Sometimes Jaci yelled, Seriously guys! This time keep score! But we would lose track partway through and just keep playing until our parents called us to get ready for bed. We played in our bare feet, kicking the ball with splayed toes and running though the dandelion grass. We pretended my littlest brother was too fast to catch. He toddled around the bases, shrieking with delight when we pretend-dropped the ball again and again.
The first time it happened was a night in early September when it was getting dark sooner and too cold to be outside barefoot. We had popped another kickball, and preferred brooding in the swingset fort to going inside for the night. The four or six of us kids, dangling our legs and resting our chins on the wooden rail. A fat rabbit was propped under the lilac bush a few feet from us. We watched it sit, not doing a thing, its eyes open wide, its body swollen from raiding neighborhood gardens. Jaci yelled at it, “Hey!” It cocked its head and sniffed. It didn’t run.
As we read our books before bed, I saw my father getting up from his chair and heard his heavy footsteps shifting in the kitchen, near the window facing the backyard. I put down my American Girl book and got up to look. My father stared out the window as the rabbit sat in the grass where we left it.
We were used to the idea of my father hunting. He hunted deer with a bow and arrow, which I knew was impressive. “Yeah, but my dad is a bowhunter,” I bragged to other kids who talked about their dad’s hunting. We made bows and arrows out of sticks and string.
This is not to say he didn’t also have guns around for practicing at the gun range or just having. Every so often I would stumble into my parent’s room to see them all disassembled and lined up against the wall for cleaning.
Every time my father shot a deer, my grandfather would tease me, saying he shot Bambi or Rudolph.
“I think I see a red nose!” My grandfather would say.
“Guess there’s no Christmas this year. No presents.”
“There’s no such thing as Rudolph!” I would yell back, but retracted the statement in my head just in case Santa was listening.
We had deer hanging proudly by their necks in our garage. My father butchered outside on the deck. We ate venison stews, gamey steaks, and thick slabs of venison summer sausage on crackers. We gave venison sausage to friends and neighbors by the sleeve.
Once my father buried a deer head in the backyard, and several summers later, my brothers happened to dig it up. They ran around screaming they found dinosaur bones.
I’ve probably seen more deer dead than alive.
My father returned to the kitchen with a gun. We watched eagerly from the window as my father crouched in the door frame, barrel jutting out. I shushed my sisters. He had waited until it was dark, the rabbit’s white tail barely visible. I remember the soft violence of the pop as the BB buried itself in the rabbit’s flesh and the rabbit dropped in the grass. It’s soft body looked like it had gone to sleep in an odd position, like my brother pressed against the bars of his crib. We jumped up and down in our nightgowns, shrieking with excitement. My mother gently corralled us to bed, but my eyes didn’t want to close. I felt strangely aware of my heartbeat. I turned onto my stomach and tucked my doll, Amy, beneath me to protect her.
The next day I found my father rinsing the rabbit in the basement laundry tub. I snuck beside him to look. All the fur was gone, and now it was just smooth, pink meat on bones. He sealed it carefully in a Ziploc bag and placed it in the deep freezer where it would stay.
“Don’t go telling anyone at school about this, okay?” He said, amusement playing at the arch of his eyebrows.
“I won’t,” I said. The thought hadn’t occurred to me.
His tone dropped, hand on my shoulder. “Don’t tell your teachers or your friends. Don’t tell Jaci. This stays in the family.”
“Okay,” I promised. He flicked me on the forehead affectionately.
Later my mother reiterated that I not tell anyone. The rabbit was somehow different from the deer in the bed of my father’s truck. The rabbit was secret. My father had a secret.
The rabbit stayed in the deep freezer where several others joined it in time. I kept thinking my father would cook them and eat them because he taught me that’s what you do with animals you kill. Maybe that was his intention, or maybe he forgot. They sat frozen for years until my father said they were probably freezer burned and threw them in the trash on garbage day. By then we had three rabbits and one squirrel. It was the first time I thought adults could have something to hide.
About the Author: Elizabeth Klaesges has appeared or is forthcoming in Whistling Shade, Brevity Blog, Rain Taxi, Allegory Ridge, and others. She is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas and lives in Minneapolis.