I arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house in Colorado on a Sunday. Three days later, we slaughtered every rabbit on their property and strung them up on a frame of rusty iron rods.
“That was a prop in last year’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar,” Grant smirked as he looped a few links of chain, choke collar-style, around a furry white foot. Grant always seemed to be smirking these days, which was strange because he hardly ever laughed anymore. I assumed it was a preacher thing, meant to make everyone feel like he knew some wonderful secret, and that if they played their cards right he just might share it with them.
The foot twitched repeatedly and I instantly regretted every lucky rabbit’s foot keychain I had ever coveted in a roadside gift shop. I also finally understood why people chose to dye them turquoise, or magenta, or crossing-guard orange. Those little white feet could belong to a well-fed house cat.
“I’ve never seen Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“This was in the prison scene.” He sliced at the skin around the ankles with quick jerking motions until he could pull it down and away, revealing the bared thighs of a tourist—white socks, knees garishly pale in the afternoon heat.
“It was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, actually,” called Cori from the kitchen window. “They put it on at the Methodist church down the street.”
Cori came out balancing two plastic tubs against her chest—one filled halfway with ice, the other overflowing with water. The front of her gray T-shirt was drenched by the time she made it to the picnic table we had pulled over next to us. Having Cori around made me feel more comfortable. Grant was my uncle by blood, but Cori had been married to him since I was ten years old. She was the first woman besides my mother I had ever been shopping with. My cheeks had burned when she had invited me into the dressing room, asking me about the boys in my class, stooping so I could help her zip a kelly-green sundress. I carried the lipstick she bought me that day (Clinique “Perfect Plum”) in my school bag for three years without wearing it once.
“Not too many plays out here these days. The drama teacher ran off with some ski instructor six months ago and nobody stepped up to take her place,” Cori giggled, a chirpy little noise, as if she had swallowed a nest of baby wrens. “You won’t be completely bored to death, though. We’ll invite some people over for your birthday, maybe light some fireworks.”
“Look who decided to join us,” grumbled Grant from behind a newly skinless rabbit. Sunlight tumbled through the trees above. He was squinting and sweating. Every so often he lifted his shirt to wipe his forehead, revealing a pale, paunchy belly. In college Grant had been downright lanky, with shaggy brown hair. I had always thought he looked like a young poet, with his hazel eyes and long lashes. Now he wore his hair short, and though he was still thin, his whole shape had changed—his shoulders more sloped, his arms soft as a bowl of bread dough.
Cori looked away as he pierced the thin gossamer of the abdomen and spilled a tangle of purple intestines into a bucket at his feet. None of it smelled too bad, besides a mildly skunky odor that hung in the air, but the falling organs hit the base of the bucket with a wet smack, and the transparent colon revealed a long trail of dark brown pellets waiting in the wings. Cori’s upper lip shone with tiny droplets of sweat and her freckles popped like splatters of ink on white paper. She looked toward the stagnant creek behind the house. “I had a headache, Grant. Is that all right with you, or should I have rescheduled it for another time?”
She had excused herself earlier that morning, when Grant picked up the first rabbit and began stroking it behind the ears to slow down its heartbeat. “Stress affects the flavor,” he’d said in a lullaby voice before inhaling sharply and stretching the bunny’s neck like a Slinky. He exhaled triumphantly and said to no one in particular, “These guys are young, you see. If we had waited another couple of weeks, they would be bigger, and harder to handle. This way I don’t run the risk of botching it all and hearing them squeal.”
Now Cori busied herself with arranging the tubs—water closest to Grant, then ice on the other side of the table. He handed the now-headless and -footless body to her and she dunked it in the water before arranging it on top of the ice. Grant was already almost finished with rabbit number two.
Cori looked over at me with a sheepish smile. “I know it doesn’t really make a difference, but I only let Grant buy the white rabbits. Somehow, because their eyes are so red and evil-looking, it makes it easier for me to justify it all.” She brushed her hair out of her face with the back of her wrist. “The little brown ones are too cute.”
I looked at the macabre bobblehead doll Grant was working on. The eyes had lost their fire and were now a flat, sullen blue. My dad had told me once about a fish that changed colors as it was dying. He’d caught it down in Florida, on a deep-sea fishing trip Mom gave him for his 40th birthday. By the time the fish was on ice, it looked like all the others—slippery and gray. Seeing it like that made him wonder if the bright hues and energetic thrashing had been only a figment of his imagination.
“I was thinking tomorrow we could debone the torso,” said Cori in an overly chipper voice, “maybe make some of those roulades like we had at Sara and Jake’s.”
“By all means, babe,” Grant sighed. “We could stuff them with sausage like Sara and Jake did, and purple basil, too, like Sara and Jake did. Then maybe we could take a trip to Paris, just like Sara and Jake.”
I had no clue who Sara and Jake were. Apparently it was a sore subject.
Grant scowled as he snapped the pelvis open like a book. As he greedily cut around the base of the intestines, he grazed the tiny water balloon of a bladder with the tip of his knife. A cascade of urine streamed into the chest cavity and dribbled down the front legs. The smell smacked me in the face almost instantly.
Cori must have smelled it too. She moaned quietly and took a few steps toward the house, but before she could get there, she doubled over and vomited. When she finally stood back up, her eyes were pink and rimmed with tears. Without a word she ran into the house. We could hear her heaving and coughing over the gospel music playing inside.
Grant’s eyebrows bent toward one another for a moment, but he was back at work by the time we heard the toilet flush. Cori stayed in the bathroom with the door shut until the remaining rabbits were bare and the plastic tub was in the fridge. When she finally emerged, she picked up the phone and ordered a pizza. Grant appeared unimpressed, but his voice was neutral. “I wouldn’t bother deboning them until tomorrow, hon,” he said. “They’ll probably stiffen up tonight, but the flesh will relax by tomorrow afternoon.” Then he looked at me and whispered, “Rigor mortis.”
The words made me think of gray skin with too much makeup smudged across it and the old-lady smell of the funeral parlor in my hometown. I’d only been there once, when I was younger, but now I could picture the floral pattern on the individual tissue packets available at the front doorway and feel the cheap scratchiness of the red velvet ropes lining the path to the glossy casket, as if it had been some movie premiere rather than my grandmother’s funeral. My mom had held my hand, asked me if I was sure I wanted to see her like that. I’ll always wish I hadn’t.
To distract myself from these thoughts, I looked around the kitchen. It was much smaller than my parents’. Even though my mom rarely cooked, we had every kitchen appliance imaginable. Grant and Cori seemed to cook mainly with one cast-iron pot and a couple of spatulas.
Grant poured himself a glass of iced tea from the fridge. “So, tell me about school, Anna. Are you playing any sports?”
“Are you dating any boys?”
“Grant!” Cori scolded.
“It’s none of your business,” replied Cori. She turned to me. “Your mom told me you are taking AP Calculus this year, good for you.”
“I hated math.” The tiniest drop of liquid glinted on Grant’s chin. “Your mom making you take it?”
“I want to major in math when I go to college,” I said, maybe a little too defensively. My mom and I had spent most of the summer arguing; part of me believed she had plotted this “birthday” trip as a way to get rid of me for a while, but I didn’t like the way he referred to her as if she were our common enemy. “I want to study finance.”
“I almost did that, the practical thing.” His tone was all holier-than-thou. “My mother said I was born to be a lawyer, but I knew I had been called for something more than that. Art, history, literature—all those classes were interesting, of course. But theology, that is where the real answers lie.” He drank deeply from his iced tea, as if it were the blood of Jesus Christ Himself. “Studying the Good Book doesn’t make you rich on this earth, though. The real reward comes later.” His eyes slid toward Cori, who was studiously pretending not to hear a thing he said.
“I think finance sounds wonderful, dear,” she said to me. “Everything is so twisted and convoluted these days. I wish I had taken a few classes.”
Grant sighed loudly and poured himself some more tea. “Cori the day trader,” he laughed. “I can see it now.”
She looked genuinely hurt by his sarcasm.
“Cori really loved the idea of moving out to the country in the beginning, playing the role of preacher’s wife.” His smile was so wide it felt sinister. “It sounds nice enough. A few acres outside of town, just enough to plant a little garden, live off what the Lord provides. A small town of souls to care for, share the Word with.” He sat down in a kitchen chair and leaned back. “Not exactly glamorous, though.”
Grant had planned on being a youth minister once, always game for practical jokes and long road trips. His God was gentle and loving, his world was a playground to be explored. And Cori had always been there at his side. Now every other word out of Grant’s mouth sounded like he was leading a tent revival: “the Good Word” and “our Lord and Savior.” Cori seemed to be a million miles away.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw the rabbits, their loose necks rocking in the breeze. The problem with turning 18 is that people start treating you like an adult. It was interesting at first, when my parents started being more candid about family members. I kind of enjoyed the stories about my grandma drinking too much wine at dinner parties long ago and giving neighbors a piece of her mind, but they also told me about Grant’s depression after her death, how in her dementia-ridden state she had told him she had never believed in “all that religion crap” and that she had only encouraged it because he seemed too weak to handle the world without imagining some giant buffoon in the clouds watching over him every step of the way. Old age had made her mean as a snake (my mother’s words), and something in those last long months had changed Grant. Mission trips and church camp were over. The Book of Revelations had prevailed.
I wanted to go back to ignorance, when my family members were still the happy, perfect people I’d always thought they had been.
At some point I got out of bed, walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. In that holy white glow that is only emitted by refrigerators in the darkness, the lavender flesh of the rabbits seemed more human than animal. The exposed wrist bones pressed against each other as if in prayer. They were begging me to spare them, I thought, but it was too late for any such mercy. Instead, I analyzed the smooth firmness of each muscle, each thigh a shiny bar of decorative soap. The cavities that once housed vital organs were bare and clean. And the row of red stumps that were once necks was orderly and dry, no oozing blood or tufts of fur. I stared until I felt numb and drowsy, bewitched by the electric hum of the condenser fan. Finally, I closed the door and made my way back toward the bedroom. Before I made it there, though, another light lured me in. The bathtub faucet was on, filling the white basin with steaming hot water. I peered around the corner, expecting to see Grant or Cori leaning over the sink, but the room was empty. I walked in and felt the temperature of the water. Scalding. On the floor next to the sink, I saw what looked like a plastic thermometer.
I was stooping to pick it up when I heard a sharp intake of breath behind me. “Jesus Christ, Anna, you scared the shit out of me!” Cori really did look startled, or maybe a little crazed. Her eyes were darting around the room and she was taking short, quick breaths. “What are you doing in here?” She tried to smile. It didn’t work.
“I had to go to the bathroom,” I lied.
She didn’t seem to hear. Her eyes were on the thermometer in my hand. When I looked down at it, I saw there were no numbers on the screen—just a pale blue plus sign. Cori snatched it out of my fingers and wrapped it up in toilet paper. Her hands were shaking as she wrapped more and more around it. Finally, she dropped the sloppy softball of tissue into the wastebasket. “Did you really have to go to the bathroom or were you just in here snooping?” Her voice was cold and sharp.
“Look, none of this—NONE of this—ever happened, OK? Don’t say anything to Grant.”
My view of the tiles blurred and a lump rose in my throat.
“Anna, look at me.” Her voice was softer now. “I’m not mad at you, OK? I just want to make sure you understand me. This is private, OK?”
I may have managed to mutter an “OK” before fleeing the scene. Cori followed me down the hall, but she didn’t say anything when I closed the door behind me. The shadows of her feet sliced at the glow beneath my door, but she never did knock, and she never did come in.
For years I’d heard about Cori and Grant trying for a family. My family was religious too, and what God knows, everyone else might as well know too. My mom had always been on the lookout. Anytime Cori turned down a glass of wine she got all giddy, but no announcements ever came, and at the next holiday Cori would be sipping Merlot with everyone else.
Eventually, I drifted into a worthless sleep.
The next morning, Cori was in the kitchen, the slender curve of a boning knife slashing in quick, successive arcs in front of her face. Some people can work hard at something with a placid look on their face. Cori was never one of those people. Reading, brewing tea, peeling apples—all of these activities garnered furrowed brows and pursed lips. When she smiled, the slightest crease persisted on her broad forehead. This task, deboning the rabbits, was no different. A muss of red hair perched atop her head, barely contained by a slack black elastic band. She wore loose sweatpants and an old white undershirt, presumably Grant’s. Beneath the shirt, her breasts were pointy and thin, and lower than I expected.
“Good morning!” Her eyes were blank and her grin wide, as if I were a just another parishioner walking into the church.
“Morning.” What else could I say? “Is there something I can do?”
“You want to help?”
“That bowl of herbs over there. You can spread them out on top of the meat, then put some sausage on top. Flatten it out on your palm like this.” She patted a small handful of sausage thin as a pancake on her open palm and laid it on top of the herbs. “We can roll them all up at the end, then we’ll poach them.”
I was on herb duty for ten minutes before she spoke again. “I’m sorry Grant made you watch all of that yesterday.” Her voice was low and hypnotic.
“I wanted to help.”
“Some men—” She paused, tilted her head for a better view of the knife as it slid along the bone, separating rib from flesh so that gentle crescents of white shone bright against the pink tissue in between. “Some men don’t mind killing. It makes them feel entitled, to do something like that with their own hands.” An apostrophe of red hair slid in front of her eye. She blew it out of the way. “When I see it, though, all I can see is their hands. I can’t believe that it doesn’t take more than that. To end a life.”
The skeleton was completely bare at that point, the thin bones shards of porcelain catching the morning light. She reached for her coffee cup as she set the carcass aside.
“Do you want some breakfast?” Her eyes were still blank, her fake smile still frozen in place.
I nodded. She turned toward the refrigerator. “Grant will be up in a little while. How about eggs?”
“I don’t really like eggs.”
Her phone vibrated on the counter. She frowned at it and tapped her thumbs furiously on the screen, then cracked three eggs into a bowl and scrambled them with a fork. Once the eggs were cooked and sitting in front of me, she picked up her phone and walked out the front door. I pushed the slimy yellow blobs around with my fork while she paced up and down the driveway. It was hard to follow the conversation with her coming and going like that, but on one pass I could barely hear her say, “Yes, I’m positive,” to whomever was on the other end.
When she finally came back in, she looked deflated. She went straight to the bathroom, locked the door, and drew another bath. I didn’t see her again until almost noon.
In the meantime, I walked around their property. It had been a mining lot at one point, and in the northwestern corner, a small area was fenced off. I looked around for a mining shaft or some other evidence that the fence was protecting us from something, but the land in that corner looked like everything else—rocky, with a smattering of scrubby evergreens and a few hardy wildflowers. From there the land sloped toward the creek and a gorgeous view of the rest of the valley. It looked like someone had started to plant a garden along the side of the house at some point, but now the raised beds contained only weeds. In fact, the whole property looked like a mash-up of unfinished projects—a rusty vintage tractor on blocks, two wooden doorframes, assembled but unpainted and rotting along the seams, even a partially disassembled tumble dryer. I had no clue what that had been intended for, but I assumed it was part of Grant’s new back-to-the-basics philosophy, living off the land as the Good Lord intended. The only project that appeared to have made it to completion was the set of rabbit hutches, which now contained only the occasional fly, buzzing haphazardly in and out of the wire mesh.
Inside the house, Grant was debating the pros and cons of midweek covered-dish suppers. Apparently a few members of the parish staff thought not enough people would make time for it, but Grant insisted the church needed more fellowship activities. Cori was sitting at the kitchen counter watching her coffee drop in temperature.
“Have you even heard a word I’ve been saying?” Grant had finally taken note of her comatose expression.
“Yes, of course,” Cori said, but her tone suggested otherwise.
Grant seemed satisfied, though, and continued to pontificate on conflicts with after-school athletics and the possibility of piggybacking a few Bible studies onto the evening’s schedule. He was mid-sentence when Cori cut in.
“I have to go into Denver tomorrow.” Her gaze shifted to the windowsill. “I have some errands to run.”
“OK.” Grant’s syllables were measured and slow. “Why don’t you take Anna along with you? I have to swing by the nursing home to make the rounds. Don’t want her to be lonesome around here.”
Cori’s eyes darted between the two of us. “Actually, I think it’s best I go alone. I have a doctor’s appointment. Nothing big. My cholesterol was just a little high last time. They want to recheck it. Anna will be fine here, won’t you, dear?” Her words were speeding up. She didn’t wait for me to answer. “Besides, the errands I have are boring anyway, I wanted to pick up some good bread, and go by Hobby Lobby for some more yarn. Nothing that would be of much interest to you, I’m afraid.”
I think I knew then.
I fumbled around for some words about summer reading that I had to do. Told them I wouldn’t mind a day on my own at the house.
“Great! Good!” Her eyes were shining and feverish. “Let’s get those roulades poaching, why don’t we? We can have a nice dinner tonight.”
Grant retired to the office-slash-guest bedroom to work on his greeting for the weekly church newsletter while Cori set a pot of water to simmer. She worked almost frantically, her hands clumsy and shaking. She made an attempt to hum casually as she rolled each log of rabbit and herbs in plastic, then tied the ends off in tight little knots, but her voice quavered and broke like a choirboy going through puberty. I wasn’t much use, standing there watching her work, but I felt she shouldn’t be left alone. After a while, I decided to chop some tomatoes and put together a salad.
“Sure smells good in here!” Grant peeked into the oven where the roulades were browning under the broiler, then walked over to Cori and kissed her on the cheek. He seemed more himself that evening than he had during my entire visit, cracking jokes, reaching out to tickle Cori’s narrow waist.
When we sat down at the table for supper, he said a quick prayer, thanking God for his wonderful family and the wonderful opportunities that he and Cori had been blessed with. I didn’t bow my head, and I didn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t stop watching Cori. Her eyes were closed, as were Grant’s, but each word he said was a hot poker, searing her flesh. By the end of the blessing, her face was screwed up so tightly I thought she might cry.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Grant must have seen it, too.
“Nothing,” laughed Cori, trying to swallow each emotion being displayed on her face. “Just fighting back a sneeze, that’s all.”
It was a pathetic cover-up, but Grant seemed to buy it. He spent the rest of the meal talking about the dwindling youth program at the church, and how good the rabbit was. I thought it tasted like chicken. It didn’t seem worth all the effort.
When the dishes were done, I followed Cori out onto the back porch. I wasn’t positive she even knew I was there at first. She stared at the dark shadow of the foothills for a long time before speaking.
“I wanted to live out here,” she said. “We always talked about it. Buying a little cabin, maybe starting a camp, spending our days outside, taking campers hiking.” A few coyotes began to chatter in the distance. “Colorado. Always such a mystical place in my mind.”
She paused, ran her fingers through her long ponytail, turned toward me.
“I don’t know how to explain this to you,” she said, “and you’re probably too young anyway, but I can’t say nothing.” She took a deep breath. “Blind faith is easy when you’re young. It’s easy to make promises, assume that your whole life will be one long easy road and that the person you are traveling with will want to go the same direction.”
The new moon was its own ghost in the sky. And the stars seemed to be multiplying by the instant.
Her voice was flat, completely void of emotion. “No matter what, please don’t tell Grant what you saw last night. It would kill him.”
I thought I saw her wipe away a few tears. But in that kind of darkness, it’s hard to be sure of anything.