BY ANDY TESSLER
“There’s no vet for small mammals in 200 miles, “ said Maud.
“He ain’t small, “ said Don.
“You know what I mean.” Maud rested the phone on its cradle. There was a hard wet sob from the bedroom above the kitchen. Maud put on her tulip apron, pulled a cookie sheet from the lower cabinet and opened the fridge.
“Well what are we supposed to do now?” said Don. He stood by the big window next to the kitchen table, half in Sunday morning sunlight filtering down through the April clouds. He was wearing his best khakis and a favorite light blue polo with the tiny red animal stitched over his heart.
“I am going to make cookies,” said Maud.
“What am I going to do?” said Don.
“You are going to go upstairs and comfort your granddaughter.”
“What about Sunday School?”
“We’re not going to Sunday School today.”
Don muttered, shuffled out, and climbed the stairs spryly to prove to himself that he wasn't so old.
Gabby sat on the floor, holding the brown, droopy-eared lop rabbit in her lap.
“Is the vet coming?” she sobbed.
Gabby’s parents had insisted on dropping the rabbit off with their daughter when they suddenly left Louisiana for a weeklong tour of each other’s genitalia in Las Vegas. Gabby’s father, Don and Maud’s son, had insisted that the rabbit would be no problem. Herman (or Hermy), the rabbit, had experienced a decline in health shortly after Gabby’s parents dashed off.
“No honey,” Don said, “there’s no bunny vet anywhere near here.”
“What about in the next city?” Gabby said.
“Not there either sweetheart.”
Don sat down on the floor next to Gabby who held tightly to the huge brown spluttering fur mass.
“Darling,” Don said, “I think Herman’s going to be leaving us soon.”
“It’s just part of the circle of life, sweetheart” Don said. “One day an apple grows and some time later it’s eaten.”
“Do you want to eat Herman?”
A look of horror grew on Gabby’s face as Don couldn’t think of anything to say. Herman made a sloppy gear-crunching sound.
“No, no, no,” said Don. “It’s just if Herman was a wild bunny, that’s how his life would end.”
“You want to feed him to a coyote?”
“No! We’ll … we’ll bury him out back in the garden.”
They sat in silence while Gabby cried and Herman hacked and sort of barked out black phlegm.
“I didn’t know Herman very well,” said Don, “but he had a good life didn’t he?”
“He got his back leg stuck in the cage door last Christmas.”
“And he got chased by that big pit bull that lived next door to me.”
“But the worst was when we left him at home to go see Aunt M. We were just supposed to be gone for a day but with the snowstorm we were gone for three and the power went out and killed all the lights and the heat.”
“Oh,” Don said reaching over to rub Gabby’s back. “Well he was a good bunny to put up with so much.”
“He got his leg stuck in the cage door because I chased him when he chewed all over my new American Girl doll I had just unwrapped.”
“And that pit bull chased him because Herman went and bit her puppy.”
“And we only went to Aunt M’s because we couldn’t stand to be around his awful smell anymore!”
“Well, Gabby,” Don said, “it sounds like you didn’t like Herman very much.”
“I hated him, granddad,” sobbed Gabby. “He was the worst pet ever.”
“Then why are you crying?”
Gabby sniffed. Herman twisted, gurgling like a toilet just flushing away a huge turd.
“Because this is the very first time he’s let me hold him.”
Herman clucked violently like a chicken drowning in a swamp.
“I think Herman meant well, Gabby. He’ll be up in bunny heaven soon.”
“Grandpa,” said Gabby, her eyes widening, “if there’s a bunny heaven does that mean…”
“Uh Gabby,” said Don, “do you know how Herman got so sick?”
“He ate a lot of mama’s Bible,” said Gabby.
“How in the world did he do that?”
“Well, we had to clean his cage three times a day and give him special food because his farts smelled so bad” Gabby said. “I was cleaning his cage and he hopped into the kitchen and onto a chair and then onto the kitchen table and then the counter. He hopped past the sink and tore into mama’s big black leather Bible and had the cover, all of Genesis, and half of Exodus ate up before we could stop him.”
Don stared at his granddaughter. Gabby stared at Herman. Herman stared into The Void.
“Here granddad,” Gabby said, “you hold him too. Nobody else ever has.”
“Oh, well, I don’t …”
Gabby thrust the 15lb choking fur pig into Don’s lap.
Herman honked sorrowfully.
“He doesn’t look mean anymore,” Gabby said.
Don had no idea what to do with the huge, weak, shivering lump shedding all over his favorite Sunday clothes. He patted Herman. Herman squeaked. He stopped patting Herman.
“Herman,” Gabby said, “do you love me?”
“Ah…” Don began.
“Herman, if you love me, show me Herman. Do something you’ve never done before.”
Herman stopped doing anything.
“He doesn’t love me!” Gabby wailed.
“Huuaauugghh,” Herman puked loudly onto Don’s lap.
“Herman?” Gabby asked.
“Aaackk,” Herman added.
“Uuhhllkh,” Herman concluded.
Black leather liquid poop squirted onto the other half of Don’s lap.
Don sat still as a stone, lap full of rabbit, rabbit poo, and rabbit mouth poo. Herman didn’t move.
“He loved me granddaddy!” Gabby smiled. “He loved me!”
She ran down stairs to tell Maud.
Don never did forget the sensation of Herman lying there in a pool of vomit and diarrhea, the regurgitated Bible pooling around the rabbit’s head making a kind of dark damp halo. Don never forgot because Gabby took a picture and emailed it to the whole family. Everyone told him he was a very good grandfather. Don told his son to pay for the dry cleaning.
It was nearly Christmas now and Don mulled over the previous spring and Herman’s demise. Gabby and her parents were staying with Don and Maud for the holiday. Sipping chicory coffee, waiting for his dinner at Bubba’s Swamp, Don pictured the surprised bright expression on Gabby’s face when she got her present from her grandparents: a brown and white boxer puppy. Gabby was getting a puppy and this coming summer she and her parents would finally get to take that trip to Disney World. None of it would be possible without the gift Herman gave them, the gift of leaving. In fact, Don realized, Gabby would grow up with the ability to see the silver lining in anything because as bad as anything got, at least it wasn’t as bad as living with that damned rabbit.
Don didn’t tell anyone about finding Bubba’s Swamp. It was a little Cajun place that would serve you fresh rabbit if you asked and they had any. He’d never cared for rabbit until Herman. Now rabbit tasted pretty good with a little gumbo, hot sauce, and a vague sweet feeling of revenge. After saying grace and before enjoying his meal, Don would silently name the meat before him: Herman.