You are reading Fiddleblack #13
Let us begin with me, a strong pale reed of a boy, twelve years old, in the exquisite heat of an Australian summer in New South Wales, not far beyond the western edge of the Capital Territory, where my father toiled as typist and sidekick to the American ambassador. Charging over rough gray boulders spotted green and gold with lichen, vigorously reloading our weapons and yelling, my good friend Pritchard and I chased mad-scampering rabbits that had been blinded by that awful disease, myxomatosis.
My father had given me this assignment, with a warning to be careful, just as he and the ambassador trudged off toward a trout stream, their creels already bulging with bottles of beer and tawny port. So I dashed across the rocky hills to let my pellets fly, scattering colonies of mangy hares with milky eyeballs bulging from the sides of their ratty little skulls. There were hundreds of them and they didn’t hide, just gimped away painfully until they couldn’t hear us, still in plain sight further off.
Handicapped as the rabbits first seemed by their blindness, we found it more difficult than expected to catch them off guard. They zig-zagged if we got within ten yards of them and managed somehow never to bash into boulders or go tumbling off the nearby cliffs. Something maybe about their auditory and olfactory senses heightened with the slow loss of their sight? I marveled at this and their sheer numbers, wondering how so many of them got infected like that. Had territorial authorities sprayed the forests and meadows wearing rubber suits and gas masks? Were poison caplets sown from helicopters? Or had the country been seeded with malignance, province by infested province, with one or two hundred carriers spreading it from warren to warren across the brown landscape?
However it had happened, I knew there was a reason for my presence that day. Their suffering like that so gravely was my license to blast away like some mercifully sent twelve-year-old Gabriel, a Yankee death-angel sent over to do some killing for the biological engineers who thought it’d be nice to introduce things like Cane toads, feral cats, and rabbits to the Aussie ecosystem.
Pritchard and I soon learned to take long-distance shots at the rabbits first, then bear down after they’d been wounded. We left their carcasses to rot wherever they fell still, as warning to the other blind bunnies, as snack to the large ants roving under the murky sunlight. I shot and reloaded until I got tired or ran out of lead. Then I rested with Pritchard, who replenished my pouch with ammo, my spirits with raunchy jokes, and my body with wild-boar jerky and tepid water from the canteen.
After the first few dozen rabbits lay dead, it was clear that there would be none of the death yells like you hear sometimes in the night as an owl takes one, the rabbit hollering like a child out in the darkness. These little guys just stopped, tired out, skins tight against their ribs expanding a few last times, legs kicking as the sheen came over the diseased pearls in their once inky black eyesockets. And there wasn’t much blood. Just these crusty, zombie-like bodies missing splotches of fur, looking miserable, like they’d lost some stupid fight.
We got such heart-pounding exercise during our hunt, feeling a bit stunned yet happy that no adults were going to interrupt our gruesome work. As we rested at mid-morning on a promontory near that killing field, the sun seemed ready to set the sky aflame with its mad intensity. Its light made a white mirror of the river flowing in the near valley, where my father and his boss were no doubt steadily boozing as they stalked their trout.
Glancing across the landscape, its power and a sense of what was happening that day struck me. I had stood over so many of those beasts, feeling sorrier for them each time I had to deliver a final close shot to their temples or pus-filled eyes. I sat momentarily, still as the rock and dead rabbits, and felt as if by my actions I had ended something in them that might not get another chance to hop through the light of the world again, maybe in a more predatory form, in another time, for another reason, on a different continent, to run for their lives on two legs, or maybe make something run for its life. Most of the rabbits had needed three or four shots to finally die, breathing heavily, and having watched so many bodies clench up sideways upon the dust, it was as if from that rocky overlook I could hear them imagining how strange the whole Zen-like curse of a life could be, the chorus of their last thoughts whispering beyond the terror of how they’d come to die this way.
Unsure if I could make any sense of this in words to Pritchard, I stood tall and rambled to him how I suddenly felt compelled as junior executioner to offer those who were about to die some comfort and explanation for the carnage we had taken on as our duty to perform.
Pritchard sprang gamely to his feet, telling me he thought such a gesture would be quite noble and very humane, too. Something which might, he said, “Alleviate some of those poor, blind bastards terrible fears, to which rabbits—more than any other creature—are quite prone.” To which I responded was precisely my desire, and thanked him for his encouragement. To have a friend who could understand and lend heart in times as delicate as those was a great blessing. I placed a marker in my memory to pay back my friend-in-arms for his support; some pilfered skin mags would suffice, most likely, from the embassy’s private stock.
Having no priest at hand to help me with my apology and eulogy, I took a deep breath and pronounced the following good words to the population of terrified pikas ravaged by me and that awful disease:
“Noblest of creatures, most cowering hares!” I began with voice all tremolo. “This is the dread captain speaking! I announce to you in my humblest manner the purpose for the incomprehensible terror I have flung and yelled at you over the past several hot hours.
“My work here is done out of no personal malice or hatred toward your kind. Rather, my energies spend themselves so freely in violence upon your species out of a benevolent effort to euthanize, due to the plague visited upon you by the human governors who claim ownership of this plot of land.
“The illness that afflicts you and your many, many brethren is no idle hardship engendered by the gods of this land, but a devious disease device: a germ-bullet fired into your ranks here among the rocks and weeping grasses. As some of you may know, this is not your true homeland. Your ancestors were brought here for the sustenance and sport of the locals, themselves descended from people expelled most cruelly from their homeland.
“To conclude, I wish to say to you all that I am here as impartial an executioner, as sympathetic an angel of destruction as ever there could be in the mess of historical messes that brought this suffering to your species.
“All those touched by the mucous tumors, with the eyes swelling and the skin bursting, from the first moment it appeared, have no more than ten or twenty days of agony left. All is lost; all has been for naught—but no more pain is necessary. I speak not to dissemble or spoil your last days’ joy, only to dispel false hopes.
“I am here to make most brief the final madness of your days. If it please you, I will, with utmost respect, help you meet the quickest end possible, with little to no pain.”
And having uttered this rigmarole I paused. The devilish sun took shelter behind some dimming clouds, giving the place a cathedral air after my benediction.
Gradually, during my gentle harangue—which had drawn tears from Pritchard, who cried, “God, what a world this is, man!” and clapped me hard twice on the back—a half-thousand hares crawled from their warrens and the shade of boulders to hear me better. At the sight of them, Pritchard moaned, putting a sweaty hand to each side of his red face, in great sadness at their plight.
Pritchard blew his nose, swigged from his canteen, openly moved by what we were called to do, and, having found courage in a few of my words, he drew his .22 pistol. I loaded once again my small air rifle, and one by one with the grimmest courage possible for the very young men we were, stone-faced in boyish purpose we steadied our hands to dispatch those creatures to their small heavenly rewards.
Pritchard and I then aimed and fired in rote fashion, as mute and resigned as the rabbits, each of us possessed by the will to play our roles properly upon the stage that fate had set for us that day. We did this until the last body of six hundred or so creatures lay among the quiet stones.
The rabbits’ sores glistening in the Australian sunlight, the small opalescent claws dotting the end of their shrunken paws, the silence of those who waited so bravely during the endless reports of our guns, the weight of the bodies as we set them in careful piles: what comfort it will be to have these echoes fade from my soul with whiskey, prayers, and time.
Pritchard and I then agreed to try and spin some goodness out of what we’d seen and done that day. Together we reaped more than two thousand of those dear rabbits’ feet, using the saw apparatus hidden within our Swiss Army knives. We had plans to sell the feet to a man in Tuggeranong, who was adept at crafting good-luck charms, then use the profits to establish an anti-myxomatosis-as-pest-control league.
With our harvest complete, we mopped sweat pink with blood from our brows and hauled our satchels down the rocky hills to our camp, avoiding thick lines of red and black ants with their pincers out marching double-time to commence their slow feast upon the dead.
Pritchard and I spent the rest of the night crying in the beers we stole from my father’s cooler. He and the ambassador had long since retired after their day on the river; their outlandish snoring kept all predators at bay. I would pray for dreamless sleep, for night to pass and dawn to find my soul intact, my memory at ease.
Matthew Jakubowski has written for Music & Literature, The Kenyon Review online, gorse, The Millions, Necessary Fiction, Corium Magazine, and 3:AM Magazine, among many others. He is the Interviews Editor for Asymptote, a journal of literary translation, and lives with his wife and son in West Philadelphia. He is at work on a novel.