The Cottontail

Mike - Sao Paulo, Brazil
Entered on December 15, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50

The men in Dad’s family hunted and as a kid I did too. My first kill was a rabbit that Granddad spotted outside the milk barn. He finished his Pepsi and got the 410 shotgun standing inside the door. It was always loaded, and I had often been warned never to touch it without his permission. Guns were for one thing, killing, and could do so by accident.

I watched the cottontail make its way into the woodpile. “Go get us tomorrow’s dinner,” he said.

Though I’d had some practice with the shotgun, it was limited to rotten fruit from the orchard. I’d missed everything tossed but usually hit the stationary pears granddad set atop a fencepost. I grinned, though not feeling it.

As I approached the woodpile a blackbird or two flew off, and I took aim at them. Of course I didn’t shoot because I didn’t want to scare the rabbit away – if it was still there. The rabbit had probably moved right on through to the other side, but maybe not.

I placed my feet carefully, like an Indian I told myself as I snuck up to the woodpile. I peered into the pile of tossed logs. There it was. Did it see me looking at him? It was hard to tell because the rabbit’s face was in profile. But he was quivering in that moment of hide or flight indecision. I was only eight, and the 410 while not too heavy for me to carry was a substantial presence. I placed its barrel on an outer log, and slid it up close to the rabbit’s ear.

For a moment I heard not a sound. No birds, insects, mooing – nothing. I cocked the gun and the noise itself and the slight movement of the barrel it caused should have made my victim run. I couldn’t be sure because to hold the stock of the gun firmly against my shoulder meant losing sight of the rabbit. I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.

Out in the open like that the sound was muted and now the farm sounds came back. Sitting on the ground where the recoil had put me, I turned to see if granddad had returned, but no, he was inside where the noise of the milkers was industrial level. On hands and knees I peered into the pile. I could see only hindquarters, but the rabbit was motionless. I reached in and grabbed hold of his hindquarters, and threaded his lifeless body out through the pile.

In walking back, I carried its body out in front of me for a few steps. Then I lay him down. Backing away, I felt nothing really. Nothing more than thinking I’d take the gun back and return for the rabbit, but as I turned around, there was Granddad.

“Wooeee! How’d you take him, Mickey?’ he asked. You blew his head off.” I did know that it was unsportsmanlike in my family to kill an animal not in flight (a rule that didn’t apply to coyotes because they were considered a threat). I lied; telling Granddad that I’d circled the woodpile and yelled to scare him out. When the rabbit made his move, I’d raised the gun and fired. “Lucky shot,” I said.

Outside the milk house, Granddad strung the rabbit up by his back legs. With his pocketknife he split the rabbit down the middle and stripped fur from the cottontail’s body and gutted it. At this point I went into the house. I avoided grandmother and went into my room and picked up the Tarzan book I’d started that day. By the time Granddad came into the house I was so deep in the jungle that the rabbit killing had faded.

But not for him. I could hear him go on about what a great shot I’d made. The next day Grandmother fried my kill with hers, a chicken. “They taste the same,” I’d said. “They probably felt the same too,” she said, not looking at me. I wonder if she meant us or them, or both.

I went on to kill quail and dove, though never another rabbit, and most often I missed. Dad though hunted as though his family’s survival depended on it. And he sometimes waxed spiritual about it. When people say hunting is not about the kill, it is wishful thinking. We never hunted big animals, and I knew the reason why: the bigger the kill, the bigger the lie.