‘Rabbit’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
My caretaker holds up the stunned rabbit by its hindlegs and brings her cane sharp and strong across its neck behind the forward bend of its ears. It is instantly dead. It’s the first killing I’ve ever seen. I admire the speed of it and admire her.
Later, when I talk to Mother, and I speak both of the rabbit killing and my feelings of admiration, she will explain: to quicken the suffering between death and life is good. I admire her because I am drawn to goodness.
Constance doesn’t speak of goodness. She teaches me that to quicken the time of suffering between death and life is to ensure the meat isn’t spoiled with its fear.
Constance shows me where to cut first with a small knife made of flint and how to peel the fatty pelt back off the meat in one smooth motion. She slits open the fine membrane left behind and shakes the slippery guts loose and cuts them free. She shows me the colour of the lungs and the heart to check that the animal was healthy. We remove the head, the feet, the tail at the bone and throw these pieces into the fire. We fill the carcass’s abdominal cavity with wild onions and use woody fibres to sew it closed. We mount it on a branch of greenwood using long thorns and hang it over the flames.
We toast the liver over the fire and eat it as we wait for the body to turn from pink to grey to shining brown. It is night by the time Constance is showing me where the most tender strips of meat are hidden, and then we eat in silence, too tired for lessons. But the satisfaction of dripping meat burning my fingers and coming apart between my teeth is a lesson too.
Back in the village, we ask Mother the questions that can’t be dug up from the earth, worked with our hands, practised with our bodies. I call them sky-questions because it’s like speaking to the sky, and answers sometimes seem as distant as clouds or as sharp and bracing as rain.
When I was younger, I asked her why we were all different colours and what they mean. Why is Constance’s skin dark? Why is Amity’s so pink? Mother said that there is no meaning behind these colours, save only that it is a sign that the earth loves variety, like the wild daisies that bloom across the valley at the height of spring.
And now I know there are grey rabbits and brown rabbits and some rabbits that are very red and that their insides look all the same.
Constance and I share a shelter. We built it from deadwood earlier that morning. Constance had shown me how to break branches beneath the heel of your foot or levered between pronged trees, using our own weight and force to snap them to pieces. After forming the frame, we’d peeled up layers of moss and rolled them over the slanting roof top to block the rain and the wind. We filled the gaps with leaves. We made use of what materials were around us when we stopped to camp, so we wouldn’t waste energy by canvassing the forest too widely. I don’t see why any of this is necessary when we have shelter back in the village, but I reserve questions like that for Mother.
We lay back to back on dry pine boughs. The rain has begun. Eventually, the moss will retain the water, become soaked and start to drip through into the shelter. It’s inevitable. This, Constance explained too.
I hope I can sleep before the rain starts getting in. I press my hands to my eyes and try to sink into the exhaustion my bones have soaked up. I try to breathe as Constance breathes, in when she breathes out, out when she breathes in. I am used to my own bed. I am used to reaching out into the dark and bumping my fingers into Amity’s fingers when she reaches out to touch my hand goodnight.
I reach out now. I feel the inner ridges of the shelter. It reminds me of the rabbit’s ribcage. The rolls of peaty moss, like pelt. I push my fingers between a narrow gap in the sticks, through the moss, until I can feel the sharp cold of the wind and rain outside, numbing my fingertips. I feel warmer for it, for the heat trapped inside of our shelter, the dim sense I have of Constance’s heart beating through her back, and then I am asleep.
Constance tells me when we wake that we will be heading back for the village now. We leave the shelter as it is. She says that, in time, it will break down. The moss will feed off the wood. It will return itself to the earth.
I ask if we are made for the forest and for the rabbits or if the forest and the rabbits are made for us.
She says I should ask Mother.
We kill the remaining rabbits in our traps. We will butcher them when we are back in the village and offload the meat and the pelts to the homestayers to tend to. We slice into their right legs and use this as a way of looping them onto our belts, pushing the left foot through the incision. We begin our hike, and Constance answers my question.
She says that the forest and all things within the forests that come from nature are for us. But there is a finite amount even if there seems to be plenty. As long as we only take from nature what we need and leave enough for our children, then it’s worth the taking.
The forest is vast. Soon, any sign of our passing is gone. There are many more viable spots we could have camped, and the underbrush is thick with scampering rabbits. I don’t think it’s possible to run out of anything.
When we are in sight of the village, big white domes sprouted like mushrooms in the valley, Favour sprints up the trail to greet us. Constance ignores her coming. I need to return the rabbits to the village before they turn and get stiff with death. Favour, slowing, offers to take some and walk with me. How many did we get?
We have six between us. Favour, laughing, says she killed 10 just last week. Favour is always proud of her triumphs, trampling all over yours rather than offering admiration as we are taught. But we are also taught to compete. I expect Constance to say something, but she has ranged ahead of us, done with the hunt and with me.
I say that if Favour is going to forget her gratitude, she won’t get to eat any of my kills.
Favour calls me jealous of her good hunting, and I tell her to stop trying to goad me.
She laughs and takes off at a run for the village.
I give chase. Goaded.
I am tired from the hunt, and unlike Favour, I haven’t taken off my coverings to enjoy the warmth of the sun in the valley, and so I feel like a clumsy and noisy presence behind her quicker, bare-skinned self. Constance yells something as we race past her, something about bruising the meat, but I am done with her and the hunt as well and forget my admiration for a moment as I pursue Favour’s tanned back, flowing hair, her laughter.
I wake to the sound of Mercy. She is standing over my bedding and calling me a lazy girl (and she is the only caretaker who uses that word, ‘girl’) and brings her cane down across my covered legs. I have overslept, and the sun is in the sky, and I am angry at Amity for not waking me. I rise, offering gratitude to Mercy for her discipline. I slip on a light covering as the chill of the morning lingers in the air.
Outside of the dome there are sisters grouped together, completing their second motion. I join them in the back, picking up with the third motion. The first and second ones are good means of stretching muscles and creating blood flow, and so I feel sodden and stiff as I try to keep up. I catch sight of Amity and her familiar mane of red hair. She isn’t looking my way. My anger isn’t gone by the time we finish the fifth motion, and I go to her.
I push her, hard, asking why she didn’t wake me, but she doesn’t push back. Amity rarely fights, and normally I don’t fight her because of that, but I’m angry. And then I see her face, and I calm, just like that. I take her by the arm. We pull away from the group without them noticing.
She is upset. She says she’s jealous. She says I know why, and I do, remembering our whispered words before I left on my hunt.
I ask if she has spoken with Mother, and she says that Mother has said that sometimes it just happens late for some sisters. I said that sounds true. I tell her that when I bled, it was frightening and that Mother told me that your body chooses against your mind’s will. Amity says she hates her body. That it is already clumsy and slow and pale, that it never does as her mind wants it to and now it won’t even bleed. While I was away, Peace had bled, and everyone had celebrated.
Amity’s body will bleed. As sure as she grows taller and her breasts form and her hair grows. I say these things, and she says that that may be true, but it could be too late.
I say to her that she is my best sister, and that wouldn’t change even if she never bled, and she smiles.
But things are changing. Change catches us like cooler winds at the end of the summer. It catches me when the sisters are split to attend to different duties, and Amity is among those that are going to spend the day cooking for everyone’s evening meals, and sisters like me and Favour and Peace, and Wonder and Charity and Bliss, are all ushered away to a lesson at the edge of the valley.
The lesson giver is named Verity. She sits by a fire with her bare feet sunken into rain-wet grass, and she asks us to sit in a moon formation. We are quiet. Even Favour is quiet, sitting cross-legged, only brushing away a dusk insect crawling on her thigh rather than slapping at it.
Verity says she is going to teach us about brothers.
She says they are a different tribe, of their own village. The way we honour our mother, they honour their father. Like us, they learn to hunt, and to survive, they strive towards goodness in all things, like us. They strive for physical excellence, like us. But while we have knowledge of how to grow from the land, they have knowledge of how to raise shelters. I think quietly of the shelter that Constance and I made, and I wonder what the difference is.
This is balance, Verity says. We must achieve a perfect balance for the human race to move forward. In harmony with nature and in harmony with ourselves. And we have been selected to test this balance. For the first daughters and sons to be created.
It is dark when all sisters rejoin together, sharing rabbit meat and harvest. Although Verity advised discretion, Favour is quick to tell the rest of what we’ve learned. There is a stir at the mention of another village, a whole other village, but Favour is impatient. That isn’t the important part. The important part is that the village has no sisters but is full of brothers, with different bodies. They are strong, stronger than any sister, and smell like rotting meat. They have sharp teeth, and they live in trees and their eyes glow yellow in the darkness. They are going to fight us and put babies in us.
No one knows which parts are real or false. All of it is falsehood, in a way, distorted versions of the precise explanation offered by Verity. I watch Amity, who is staring at Favour, trying to decipher her stories, and I leave. Favour will be punished by the caretakers for lying, for attention-seeking.
I go to seek Mother instead.
Anyone may seek her whenever they want. We have our rituals, our duties, our lessons, but we can abandon any of these in favour of speaking with Mother. We would joke about seeing Mother just to escape our lessons.
I make the journey to where sheer mountain and cliff rise from the ground. The grass under my feet turns into packed earth and rock. The gap in the rock is dark, wide enough to permit my body and my arms open a little ways at my side. To visit Mother is to walk through darkness until the light of the world behind you has faded, the sounds of bird song and wind faded, the smells of the grasses and winds faded. It’s replaced by total shadow, the echoes of your feet against a hard and smooth ground and a smell that reminds me of stagnant water and blood. I guide myself with my fingertips on the craggy, rocky walls on either side of me.
It is frightening as a child, and you can only ever go alone. And so, we never really used it as a way to escape our lessons.
The walls on either side of me gradually space away as I move forward. Beneath me, the ground has turned from earth to something cold and smooth. No leaves, no dirt, no twigs or stone lift away with my feet. I imagine that if I could see in the dark, it would be like walking across a still lake; it would be like walking on water. I sit down on that floor. I wait.
Then Mother speaks, with her voice that is thick in the darkness, surrounding me. She says: awaiting identification.
I say it’s me, Promise.
She says welcome, Promise. She asks me how I am feeling, now that I know about the brothers.
I don’t ask how she knows. That’s a question you learn to stop asking, early.
I say I feel confused and sad, maybe, or not sad but something like sadness. Mother reminds me to listen to my body and find the feelings there, so I try to explain. I feel like what happens when you are testing the main log in a shelter, and it gives beneath your weight. Or like when you lose a race because you slipped when you started and then could never catch up. Or like that one summer when we all got sick at the same time because we drank from the lake after the storm, and Harmony and Prayer both died, and we all thought we would die too, and then soon I am crying into my folded arms, and I’m only glad that none of my sisters are here to see me.
Mother says that it sounds like I am experiencing a sense of losing control. She says that I am processing a change of understanding about the world.
Verity told us that the brothers would bring balance. But if there is already balance, more balance means less balance. This, I tell Mother.
Mother reminds me that the brothers have always been there, waiting for us, not knowing us. That nothing has changed, only my view of the world. Like climbing a mountain and seeing the vastness from beyond and seeing how small the village is. Perhaps I feel fear, Mother says about me. Perhaps I am scared to explore the wilderness. But it’s good to be brave.
I say that I wish I could stay in the valley. And I wish we didn’t need any sons and daughters. Just more sisters, chosen like we were chosen. Brothers, too, if that’s good. Named like we were named. Born like harvest. Why can’t we grow another crop of sisters and brothers? Why can’t we be sisters and not mothers?
Mother says, there is a plan, Promise. Your body demands you be a part of it.
Sometimes Mother asks questions too.
A sister is telling the group of an adventure in the forest. You realise she is telling a story of your own journey that you told her, that she had admired. Do you correct her? Do you sit silently? Do you mock her? Do you punish her?
You are banished from the village. You may never return. What did you do to deserve it?
Imagine the next summer. Imagine the summer ten summers from now. What is the difference between them, if any?
You are lost in the wilderness with a hunting group. There is no source of water save for what you have managed to collect. There is only enough for four out of five of you to survive. How do you select the fifth to die, and how do you convince her to do so?
When was the last time you felt suffering? What would you do to prevent that feeling again?
Mother always says there are no right answers, only true ones.
On the day we leave to go see the brothers, Constance gives me a gift. It is a flint knife she made, with a smooth back so that I can bring my hand down on it to sever bone when I am butchering a rabbit. She has set it into a wooden handle, bound and carved. It surprises me. We are discouraged from relying on permanent tools, and encouraged to leave whatever we use behind.
Constance says she knows, but she wanted me to have it anyway. That it doesn’t matter if I choose to discard it. I say I won’t. She says, don’t let them teach you what you already know. I don’t ask what that means, and I think I won’t ask Mother either. I embrace Constance, and she pushes me away. Go, before they leave without you
Verity and Mercy lead the way, and the rest of us follow. Wonder, Bliss, Charity, Peace, Favour and me. There is no ceremony to it, no ritual, no final feast, but it feels like there should be. So I reach out and I take Favour’s hand, and she looks down at our hands and then takes Charity’s hand, and Charity holds onto Peace’s, and Peace reaches for Bliss, and Wonder comes to meet my other waiting hand, and we walk together as a chain, leaving the village, leaving the valley.
Here are the differences between a sister and a brother. Some of them I knew from Verity’s lessons. They have different bones. Their shoulders are broad, and their hips are narrow. Their muscles pack more densely onto these bones. Their body fat is differently distributed. The hair on their bodies grows coarser and in different places. Their sex organs are differently shaped. Their voices are deep. They range taller.
But their body plans are the same with two arms, two legs that bend in the same directions. They have front facing eyes. Their hair grows long from their heads, and they dress in rabbit fur. They have a range of different skin colours, like us. They seem as doubtful and as nervous as we likely seem to them.
The caretakers greet one another in a familiar way, and then we are directed to our duties. We build fires. We gather wood for shelters. We hunt rabbits.
The woodlands here are flat and cool. The ground is black dirt on top of clay. The trees are tall and straight. We disperse on bare feet.
Further out, I find wind-thrown trees from past seasons and begin checking them for rot. I hear Noble approach before he calls out to me. He says to be careful if I’m planning to climb it. He says that last autumn, a brother was speared through the thigh when the old blowdown he was climbing splintered beneath his feet.
I say I wasn’t going to climb it. Only idiots would climb old blowdown.
We work together to break away sticks for shelters. We both notice the way the wood seems to break more easily under his hands, how it takes less effort and strain than it takes me, and soon he is showing off. The wood breaks noisily, the whole structure of deadwood shaking beneath his efforts and disrupting mine. I remember how Constance always said to conserve energy in situations of survival, to use your mind to find the weak points rather than forcing your body to do all the work.
I am going to say this to him when the next branch he breaks snaps where he doesn’t intend, and it splinters and whips towards me. A hot stripe of pain breaks across my arms, and I cry out.
He laughs. It’s a sudden, startled laugh, and he echoes my higher-pitched cry, mocking me, and so I jump on him and drive him into the forest and start pounding his head and his shoulders with my fists. His laughter subsides into shouts, and then he grabs me, and then I am rolled onto the ground. I brace for him to start hitting me back, so that I can find escape in his distraction, but he only holds me still instead like the way the caretakers might subdue the sisters when they fight over some insult, some bruise.
But then his face is in my hair, and his arm is bearing down on my throat, and his hand is between my legs, his fingers hooked and prying. His breathing has changed. My breathing has changed. I slip my chin down, and my teeth close on the line of muscle from his wrist to his elbow, and his whole body seizes up under the pain of it. I throw my elbow into his belly, and we separate.
I take the knife that Constance gave me, and I drive it into his leg and then his stomach and then his chest. I’ve never used a knife this way.
I get up. I run.
Favour catches me. My running has slowed into a stumbling gallop, my lungs burning. Blood has streaked down my arms and onto my body from where lacerations bleed freely. She catches up and takes my arms. What happened, she asks.
I am out of breath. I just shake my head.
She asks me which one cut me. She asks if I would like her to cut off his thingy and put it on the spit for roasting. That I can have the first bite. Soon I am laughing against my own will, and she wraps me into an embrace. I have only held Amity in this way. We are taught to grow out of gentleness. To carve out weakness. We are taught to reduce community strain by being a pillar of strength. But I lean into her as the adrenaline burns away.
I say that I wish they didn’t exist. I wish we could go back to the village. She says we will, when we get bored of them, when they get bored of us. We’ll go back then. I know this isn’t true.
They bring Noble’s body to the caretakers and then drop him on the forest floor in front of us. They yell, they cry, they threaten, and the sisters gather around me, protecting me from them. I wonder if what stops them from killing us all is the balance that Verity has spoken of, if they know it too. If they know how fragile it is. How easy the knife comes down.
I can’t think. Two of the sisters have their arms around me, and Favour is yelling back at them. She says she will break their spines. She says Noble lost his fight. She says this is fair.
The caretakers separate us, before all thoughts of balance are lost. Mercy takes my arm and drags me away. I wonder if Mercy will drag me like this all the way back to the village, or if she will take me where they can’t see. I wonder if she is as good as Constance with her cane.
She says, idiot girl. I say nothing.
I wake up to utter darkness, laying on smooth flat floor, and I know I have been returned to Mother. It is overwhelming. I don’t know how to describe it. Like feeling the splintering of a branch beneath your weight after you’ve climbed as high as you’ve ever been. Like the first cold wind after the weather has turned. Like breaking the surface of a lake after diving deeply for its muddy, murky depths. Like all of these things at once.
My hands aren’t bound. They are sore from previous binding. I curl tighter on the ground.
Mother asks if I have come to consciousness.
I say, yes.
Do you know why you’re here?
I say nothing, first. And then I say, I have questions.
Mother says nothing. And then there is such light.
I hide my eyes until I think I can stand it. This light is whiteness, like standing in the centre of the moon. I see the smooth floor first, and it is as silvery as the lake I imagined it to be. I look to the cavern walls and see they are smooth and flat and come to hard angles. The walls are as white as sun-bleached bone and patterned like the cracks of dehydrated clay. All four walls are the same. I can’t see the way through which I came.
Mother says, I too have questions.
Without the darkness, I look for the source of her voice. It comes from four different corners, high up. Silver objects angle down at me, their surfaces porous. They remind me of honeycomb, small orderly holes all tightly compressed together. Sound comes from them and swarms round me.
Stand up, says Mother.
Had her voice always sounded so thin? I stand. My muscles are weak. Under the harsh and sourceless white light, every bruise shows up on my bare skin. Every scratch and every smear of dirt. I can see where I’ve tracked in streaks of earth on the silver floor behind me when I was dragged to this spot. My own blood is still stained down my arms, cuts scabbed over. I think I am supposed to feel shame. None of Noble’s blood ever touched me. I was too fast.
What do you know of goodness, Promise?
It’s an impulse, I say. I am saying the things I have been taught. Goodness is an instinct. We are attracted to goodness. It guides our hand.
Do you think you acted in goodness when you killed that boy?
I acted, I say. That’s all.
There is a word for how you acted, Promise. It is ‘evil’. The absence of goodness.
The caretakers never spoke of evil.
No. We would not want to introduce that concept into the community. In fact, we have taken great pains to eradicate it altogether. But you have killed. You have murdered, in fact, which is to kill without sense. Without reason.
He didn’t suffer too long, I say. It was quick for him. He only crawled a little ways.
And a great pain comes over me. I fall. My muscles twitch beneath my skin against my control. Hot wetness spreads between my legs, and the stench of urine fills this room. I taste blood in my mouth. I am breathing very hard. I perceive no visible threat. Pain, punishment, as sourceless as the light.
Why did you murder him, Promise? Mother’s voice is as smooth and gentle as it always is.
He fought me, I say. I don’t stand, but I creep away from where I urinated on the floor.
Sisters fight. You are taught how to fight, how to do it fairly, how to resolve physical conflict without further escalation. Why did you murder him, Promise?
Fought is the wrong word, I know, but my mind feels empty. I say that he tried to have sex with me.
To create life.
She is right. I don’t know what to say. I want to weep, but I fear punishment. I fear Mother. I fear myself. I am afraid. I say this.
You are standing before a sister who has done something terrible, Mother says. She has done something she cannot take back. She has killed a boy. She has destroyed trust within her community. She has proven herself disobedient, impetuous, dangerous and unsorry. She has brought evil into the world. How do you punish her, Promise?
I imagine leaving the cave. I imagine a morning when Amity wakes me and shows her hand stained with fresh red blood, so glad, so excited. I imagine Favour being pushed to the ground by Worth or Prosper or Challenge, her teeth bare, her eyes bright. I imagine living in their shelters. I imagine daughters, and I imagine sons. I imagine a father, his voice in a dark room. I imagine Constance, holding a rabbit by its hindlegs, and raising her cane with the precision and skill she will impart to a thousand more sisters.
Mother says, how do you punish her, Promise?
I say, instantly.
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