ON CATCHING A RABBIT
It wasn’t the first time my dog had caught a rabbit, but it was the first time he’d brought one to me still alive. There had been maybe half a dozen other occasions over a two year period when he had pursued a rabbit into the undergrowth and come back with it between his teeth. But it had always been dead, hanging limp and loose either side of his mouth. Its head lolling and its feet bobbing. Secretly, I’d suspected that these rabbits had died before he’d caught them, out of fright maybe, or perhaps, in pursuing a live rabbit he had stumbled across a dead one and was trying to trick me – take credit where it wasn’t due.
This time there was no doubt he had caught it himself because it was still writhing, its legs kicking, its head twisting and flailing. I shouted the dog over, thinking the rabbit unharmed, that I could save it. I went to take it from his jaws but as I did it was like someone or something had switched it off. A moment ago is was kicking and writhing with life. Now it was limp with death. Its head loose and floppy and blood dripping from its open mouth. He must have ruptured its internal organs, I thought. How easily these rabbits give up their powers, how calmly they offer themselves up to the altar. No screams of despair, no sounds of anger, of pain or fear, not even a squeak or a murmur. Almost willing victims in their own sacrifice.
I went to take the rabbit off him, not knowing really what I would do with it. Bury it? That seemed unnecessary and anthropomorphic. Skin it and cook it? I’d chosen the path of vegetarianism at the age of eighteen and now twenty two years later the thought of biting into raw or cooked flesh made me shudder with disgust. I had a friend, a fine art framer, who liked collecting wild mushrooms to make them into soups and stews, and elderflower sprays to infuse into a refreshing cordial on hot summer afternoons. Perhaps he would welcome a fresh kill? But my dog would not let me take his prize from his muzzle. He backed off, wagging his tail, to show he was not being aggressive, but this was his reward. He had given chase, he had caught it wriggling between his teeth, and he was going to keep it.
We carried on walking our usual five mile circuit. He trotted beside me, clutching the rabbit in his mouth. As we came into contact with other dogs, my normally social and friendly animal, raised his hackles and growled. The dogs who had only known him as a friend, now backed off in fear and surprise. We got back to the house and my dog took the rabbit into the garden. He sat with it between his front legs, licking the blood from its head like a raspberry lollypop. After less than an hour, he had bored of this and he went back inside, curled up into his basket and went to sleep.
I sat in my shed, writing. Within minutes two huge beautifully coloured magpies, flashing iridescent green and violet, flew into my garden and strutted up to the corpse. Ever so carefully, keeping watch all the time, they got closer and closer. Each taking it in turn to advance while the other stayed guard, until they had reached the body and started to peck at its chest. Quick, hard, powerful pecks, soon opened up the carcass just above the ribcage. They pecked through the outer layers of fur and flesh until they could bury their beaks into the soft offal. They gorged themselves on the heart and other internal organs, before my cat, which had been sitting on the garden table watching, pounced. They flew off.
Later my wife came home from work and saw the tattered corpse on the lawn. What was I going to do with it? She wanted to know. Throw it over the fence, she suggested. Get rid of it. I had other plans. I wanted to leave it where it was and see what happened next. What happened next was nothing, apart from a few flies, no other creature showed any interest. As we went to bed that night, I said I thought a fox would get it.
In the morning I went out into the garden and saw all that was left was its head and neck, some entrails. Had a fox visited while we were asleep to feast on this meat? I didn’t think so. Why would a fox not just carry the entire booty to its den? Would it really dine in our garden, risking its life in such an exposed setting? It didn’t seem likely. So who or what had eaten the body of the creature? I noticed about a foot from the head of the rabbit a strange object. About eight inches long and one and a half inches wide, curling like a banana. It was chocolate coloured and slimy. It was made up of rotund segments. What was it? Could it be the swollen intestines of the animal? I’d heard that the gases trapped inside the rubbery inner tube of alimentary canal could expand and inflate the sack. Or was it the faecal matter of a fox? That had feasted on the flesh until its bowels were full?
There was only one way to find out. I searched for a stick to poke the object. Eventually I found one long enough to allow me to give it a hard poke without being too close. Would the inflated bag explode I wondered? If it was the faecal matter of a fox, would its stench make me wretch? As I walked back to the mystery object, my dog approached it. He sniffed it a couple of times, and then, in a very casual, almost nonchalant manner, stooped his head down and gobbled it up in one go. Now I would never know.
That night my wife came home and saw the ragged head on the lawn. What was I going to do with it now? She wanted to know. She wanted to cut the grass, we had guests staying over the next night. I said that I was going to do nothing, I wanted to see what would happen to what was left. The next morning I took the dog for our usual five mile walk. We saw some rabbits and he gave chase, but this time they won and he lost. We got back and I made myself a cup of tea. I was about to tidy up. I walked over to the window, wondering where the dog was. And there I saw him, on the lawn, chewing on the remains of the head. His expression was one of intense concentration as his jaws crunched down on the flesh and bones. He was entirely caught in the present of the moment.
I watched for some time as he gnawed away. Until all that was left was the rabbit scalp, two eyes and two ears. Then he leapt up and danced around the remains. He frisked and gambolled like a puppy. He barked at the left-over offal playfully and skipped around it. He grabbed the scalp and chucked it in the air, bouncing around it as it landed. He repeated this three or four times, before rolling over on his back, rubbing himself into the fur and bones. He was revelling in its death, ecstatic with the thrill of it.
I thought about the word ‘carnival’. From the Latin ‘carne’ meaning ‘flesh’ and ‘levare’ meaning ‘lift’. A feast of flesh. A celebration of death. And of Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘without cruelty there is no carnival’. I thrust myself back in time. I was a hunter/gatherer, in a small party of men, tracking down a gazelle over a three day trek. Eventually spearing it and bringing back its corpse to be butchered. Bringing it back to my hungry tribe, a provider, a victor, a savour. Smearing myself with its blood, dancing round the fire, drunk with my triumph.
Now, as I type this, in my shed again, I look out onto the lawn, at the rabbit scalp, two ears and two eyes staring back, a furze of bluebottles swarm around. My dog lies beside me on a blood stained rug, sleeping the sleep of the innocent.