Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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Distress Cries of a Cottontail Rabbit

There was blood on her toilet paper so my mom scheduled a colonoscopy. They found a polyp the size of a fig. It was cut off and cauterized. Then a surgeon went back and removed a wedge from the rectal wall, hoping to get a clean margin. I flew to South Carolina for a few days to be with her during the recovery.

My mom’s husband of two years picked me up at the airport. His name was Jim. He looked like John Lennon might have looked if he’d lived to sixty-five.

First thing, I asked, “Does she look sick?”

I wanted to be prepared. I didn’t want Jim to say yes but if the answer was yes, I needed to know so I could control my reaction when I finally saw her. There was a chance the surgery had been successful and she was totally fine, and there was also a chance it had spread deeper into the muscle and into nearby lymph nodes. I looked up pictures online. I shouldn’t have.

Jim said, “She’s lost weight.”

That meant yes—yes, she looked sick. I asked, “What does it mean?” and hated myself for sounding dumb. I knew it was bad but I didn’t know how bad.

He said, “Cancer requires energy to grow.”

I said, “Fuck.”

I wasn’t ready to be left alone like that. I always called her for advice. When I asked what stove-top cleaner to use when my roommates let their pots boil over, she said, “Bar Keepers Friend.” When I asked what was most important when picking a new credit card, she said, “A low interest rate.” When I asked her if I was crazy to stay in Montana after I graduated from college so I could keep skiing and work the front desk of the Elkhorn Lodge, she said, “You’re young, do what you love.”

In the car, I felt myself about to cry and stared out the window without blinking so the tears would go away. It was something I practiced. The long, wide stare. If you blinked too soon, you lost.

Jim broke the silence by asking, “Do you like chicken?”

We picked up a twelve-piece bucket on the way to their house. It was dark when we arrived. I felt my heart inside of me. They lived on thirty-five acres of retired farmland, a life made possible because Jim had built cabinets for all the big mountain developments, including The Cliffs, and had enough money that my mom could quit her job as a veterinary technician and they could live out here in peace. I was thankful Jim could do that for her. But the peace didn’t last as long as they had hoped.

Jim opened the back door, called, “We’re home,” and my mom emerged in pajamas and a bathrobe, hair like a handful of dry corn silk. I associated bathrobes with sickness and didn’t like seeing her in one. A sweatshirt would have been better. She brushed past Jim and hugged me. What had once been soft felt bony. She’d probably lost twenty-five pounds.

Don’t blink, I thought. Don’t fucking blink.

She said my name like she had been waiting to say it: “Lizzie.”

I asked, “Are you okay?” and she didn’t let go of me. I thought she was prolonging the hug at first, and then I realized that she was holding onto me for balance.

She moved to a chair with an inflatable doughnut cushion that squeaked. She said, “I’m trying to have a good attitude.” It was horrible. I could barely look at her. Jim and I pulled wings and thighs from the greasy bucket, but my mom kept her hands in her lap.

“What did the surgeon say?”

“We won’t really know anything until the consultation.”

Jim said, “In a week,” and when he’d gotten all the meat he could from a wing, he discarded the bones on a paper plate. He wiped the grease from his mouth and his beard and kept eating.

My mom echoed, “A week.”

I didn’t know how a person could wait that long. How were you supposed to fill the days? What were you supposed to do with the anxiety? Channel it into, what, knitting? I put my piece of chicken on a napkin. Eating at a time like that made me self-conscious. My mom wasn’t eating, either. She looked like a rag doll in the chair. There was no fat left on her face, only skin pulled over bones, the cheeks carved like a mogul’s. If only I was as graceful in real life as I was on the mountains.

My mom’s stomach growled. Based on her expression, I couldn’t tell if it was painful or if she was just embarrassed. She stood up slowly and cupped her butt with both hands. A little kid would have laughed. I might have laughed if it was anyone other than her. She picked through prescription bottles in a wooden bowl on the counter and took a painkiller.

Jim poured her a glass of tea and said, “Better drink this, honey.”

She took a sip and put a hand to her throat. It was a weird thing to see, how she touched herself to see if the parts were still there and working. But it must have been a side effect of cancer. She must have had questions for her body. What was normal? What was abnormal? Could it be trusted? I had no idea what that was like. The only time I felt betrayed by my body was when I was hungover and that was my own fault.

She stopped in the doorway and said, “I’m sorry I’m so tired.”

“You need rest.”

“I’ll be better for you tomorrow.”

I didn’t like the “for you” part. It shouldn’t have been about me. Up until then, it had always been about me. Now it was about her. I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and immediately wished I could take it back. What bullshit. Worrying was all there was.

“When do you have to leave?”

I told her that I had to leave on Wednesday morning. It was Sunday night, which meant I only got two full days at home. It wasn’t enough. I knew that. But my Elkhorn boss was a bitch with rosacea.

“We’ll make the most of it,” she said. “Goodnight.”


Jim called, “Leave the light on?”

I knew she was disappointed that I couldn’t stay longer, but she didn’t have the usual energy to show it. The difference in her was painful to see. I wanted the color back in her face, the brightness in her eyes, and the meat on her bones. But she hadn’t touched the food.

I asked Jim, “Why didn’t she eat?”

“She’s afraid that going to the bathroom will hurt.”

There was nothing I could say to that.

A kitten came into the kitchen and I was glad because it was easier to look at a kitten than think about my mom not wanting to eat.

Jim dropped a chicken bone on the floor.

“That’s Pippin?” I asked. A few weeks earlier, before the polyp was discovered during the colonoscopy, my mom had called to tell me that she’d found a kitten on the side of the road and had taken him home with her.

“Yep,” Jim said. “Just don’t take that bone away from him or else he’ll bite your finger off.” He showed me his thumb. There was a hole in the nail and it was black. He said, “I think he knows something’s wrong. He normally sleeps in the linen closet but lately he’s been on your mother’s pillow.”


That night, my eyes adjusted to the dark. Prayer flags were strung over the headboard and when I looked up, I saw them moving a little. There were Tibetan words on the colored squares. I didn’t know what the words meant but I could guess—bravery, courage, hope, faith. Crap that a Sherpa could say in the Himalayas.

I felt bad that I had to go back to work so soon. I didn’t want to leave before we knew if the cancer had spread or not, but it was also a relief because I could return to my daily life and not have to face the problem head-on. That’s the kind of thing that makes you hate yourself—wanting to be close and then wanting to be far away. It felt so bad to be around her, to see her diminished. It made me want to get drunk. It made me want something other.

I considered slipping downstairs to take one of her painkillers, just so I could get a better night’s sleep, but I decided not to. The stairs creaked.


The next morning, on Monday, Jim went out to his workshop. It was a barn in the pasture that could be seen from all of the windows facing west. It wasn’t red. It seemed like a waste to have a barn that wasn’t red.

That left me and my mom. She soaked in the tub with bath salts and the smell of eucalyptus wafted through the air and the house started to breathe. I sat in a chair in the hallway, just outside of the bathroom, and steam drifted under the door and through the keyhole. It was nice just to sit outside and still be able to talk. I flipped through an old photo album and looked at photos that I hadn’t seen in years. Lots of them I’d never seen at all. When you don’t mind looking at photos anymore, that’s how you know that you’re getting older and things have changed. You reach a point when it’s easier to look backward instead of forward.

She said, “Describe what you see.”

Her voice bounced off the tiled bathroom and she sounded like a mouse trapped in a glass bottle.

“Me in a car seat. Me in a witch costume. Me on a trampoline.”

“What else?”

“Sugar Mountain.”

When I was eight, we had driven up to North Carolina one weekend and gone snow tubing on Sugar Mountain at night. The trail was lined with little lamps and snow fell through the blue light onto the trees. We skidded down a long, icy slope in tubes, cheering the whole way down, and then grabbed onto the pull-rope to take us back to the top again. Our cotton socks were soaked by the end of the night. We went back to the lodge-style hotel room, with paintings of black bears and lampshades covered in dancing Kokopellis, and perched on the edge of the bathtub to soak our toes in lukewarm water. They had frozen together. There was no blood in them. They were white.

I remembered us sitting side by side and, instead of complaining or regretting the trip, she said, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”

It was.

I heard a splash on the bathroom floor. I stood up and said, “Are you okay?”

“Something came out.”

I had no idea what my mom was talking about. I’d seen part of a movie on TV once, based on a Stephen King book, where creatures came out of people’s assholes. I thought, Get ahold of yourself.

She said, “It’s black.”

“Should I call the doctor?”

“I think it’s the sponge. The surgeon said there was one to absorb the blood.”

I groaned. I couldn’t help it. I really couldn’t. It was the thought of a sponge inside her body, like a tampon, absorbing blood, turning dark red and then black, the smell of it, the way its color must have spread in the water. I knew that she would be insulted and there was no way to take it back.

“I know,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”

I spoke to the closed door. I said, “I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m disgusting.”

“I’m sorry.”



She was getting wound up. It was my fault.

She said, “It’s the part of my body that’s always embarrassed me the most and now there are doctors sticking probes up my butt. Why couldn’t it just be my brain? Why couldn’t I just drop dead?”

She was draining the tub.

I stood close to the door, my fingertips touching the wood, and I said, “Don’t say that.” I was really saying, “What about me?”

She refilled the tub and soaked in silence.

I sat back down, moving the chair a little, so she would hear it and know that I was still there.


Later, she came out of the bathroom wearing the robe. A stack of photo albums was on the floor, which I had been flipping through, and the page I had left open showed me in a portrait studio with a rabbit in my lap. It must have been Easter. She looked at the photograph, the brown rabbit, the wild grin of my girlhood, and I knew that she was sorry. So was I. I hadn’t meant to sound grossed out and she hadn’t meant to snap. I don’t even think it was dying she was most afraid of. That was my fear. Her fear was probably the sponges and probes, the way a person became more and more like a specimen.

We moved into the library, a small room with shelves of John Grisham books and a team of Jim’s whittled horses on the windowsill. She sat in a chair by the window and said, “We should talk about my will.”

I felt my chin wanting to shake and my eyes filling up. It was not a conversation I was prepared for. It was not a conversation I wanted to have. It was, in fact, the last thing I wanted to hear from the one person who was my family, the one person who had always been there, unlike my father who left when I was little and all the high school friends who faded away and the college friends who had moved on and the college friends who stayed in town but weren’t reliable and all of the guys in bars who had turned away from me and started talking to girls that were cooler or softer or whatever and all of the coworkers at the hotel who came and went, some of them alright, some of them assholes, and also my roommates who worked at the satellite TV company and let the pots boil over and sometimes paid the utilities late and laughed as they banged on the windows in the morning to scare off the deer who liked to stick their noses in the frozen flower pots, looking for something to eat.

I held it in.

Then my chin went from wanting to shake to actually shaking and I couldn’t not-blink anymore. I knew it was healthy to let myself be upset but fucking shit I hated it.

My mom said, “We’ve got to talk about it sometime.”

“It” being her last will and testament, which was nearly incomprehensible to a selfish twenty-four-year-old like me.

I said, “Not yet.”

She said, “I’m still here.”

I said, “Stay.”

“For as long as I can,” she said. “I promise.”


That night, still dazed from our talk in the library, I drank some beers that I found in the fridge. My mom had taken another bath, eaten a handful of dried cranberries, and gone to bed. She probably would have felt better if she’d been eating more, but when I brought it up, she said that her stomach didn’t feel good and she just needed rest. I didn’t want to argue.

Jim came into the kitchen and got a deli bag out of the fridge. He ate big pinches of shaved turkey. Sawdust clung to his waffle-knit shirt. He said, “I put up those photo albums.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Forgot I left them out.”

I thought he was going to harass me about tidiness, but instead he offered me the bag of turkey and I shook my head.

“Did you know all the rabbits are gone?” he said. “The fox population rose and now there aren’t any rabbits. Eventually the fox population will collapse and the rabbits will come back.” He scratched his beard.

“You saw that Easter picture of me?”


He and my mom had been married for two years and we’d never had a real conversation before. Then again, we’d never had a reason to.

He asked, “Want to see some foxes?”


“On the property.”


“As good a time as any,” he said. “They’re active at night.”

I finished my beer, thought, What the hell, and put on a pair of my mom’s yard shoes that sat on the boot rack by the door. The ends of the laces were red from dragging on the ground. They were a snug fit.

Jim picked up supplies from his workshop and met me at the truck. I asked what was in the bag but he only said that I’d see later. We drove through the pasture and into the woods. The path hadn’t been maintained and the truck bounced in every dip. I got out to move fallen limbs. Where there were breaks in the canopy, I saw stars.

He finally stopped and said, “This should be a good spot.”

The bag sat between us. Jim pulled out a portable record player and a 45 rpm record in a paper sleeve. It said:


He went outside and put the record player on a stump. He dropped the needle and at first I didn’t hear anything. He got back inside, turning off the truck and the lights. Then a shrill squeaking began. I had never heard the distress cry of a rabbit before but it was some bad news. I might have believed it was a rabbit at first but as the cries continued, they started to sound like a big bird or maybe a wild cat. It struck a chord deep inside of me, something biological, because I felt like I should help the thing that was crying but, of course, it was just a recording. How they captured the audio, I didn’t know. Hopefully a bunch of little cottontail rabbits weren’t tortured in a sound studio.

I said, “This lures the foxes?”


“It’s awful.”

Jim pulled a package of jerky out of the glove compartment. He chewed on a piece and looked straight ahead into the dark.

“They said there was a cure,” he said, “but she wouldn’t take it.”

I hadn’t realized that he was planning serious-talk. If I’d known what was coming, I would have stayed at the house and let my mind go to mush watching TV. But the “cure” part was something I hadn’t heard before.

I asked, “What do you mean?”

“They could remove her rectum.” He tore another piece of jerky with his teeth. He chewed. It sounded like he had big mastodon teeth working on that jerky. Not chewing. Mastication. He said, “It would mean a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.”

I was hearing things I never thought I would hear. Carrying around a bag of shit didn’t seem like a way to live. It would always be there, even in public, and would have to be emptied. There would be a smell. A color.

I must have had a bad look on my face because Jim said, “You’re young.”

He meant to say, “You don’t understand.”

But I sure as hell was trying.

“Who knows,” I said. “Maybe they already got it all and we’re just worrying because we can’t help but imagine the worst. That’s human nature, I guess.”

Side One of the record ended.

He said, “I haven’t had her long.”

He made it seem like he was afraid of losing her but he didn’t act like it. All he did was hole up in his workshop and eat. I wanted to tell him to quit with the jerky. It seemed like all I saw him do was eat meat. Chickens, turkey, deer. Maybe he wanted to eat the rabbits, too. I was a little tipsy in the truck and it was easy to imagine him salivating as those rabbits cried. The point was, he could have been doing a hell of a lot more. Maybe he was staying out of the way because I was home, but still. I wanted to see an effort. I wanted to know that he cared and was going to take care of her. We were her support system for Christ’s sake. The two of us. It was a shame because we weren’t good enough.

He said, “My first wife died of breast cancer. I don’t think you know that so I just wanted to tell you. That’s why it’s so hard not knowing how this is going to end up—with your mother.” He looked at the jerky bag. He said, “I seem to have developed a nervous eating disorder.”

My mom had never told me about his first wife dying. I certainly would have remembered if she had. Maybe she thought it was too private, that it wasn’t her place to tell me something like that. It made me feel bad for Jim. How could it not? Before, I had no idea where he was coming from. I had no idea what he had already been through with his first wife. I had been a harsh judge, which was uncalled for because he was scared shitless just like me.

I could have said, “Sorry,” but I bet he’d heard that a million times already and so I sat in the cab and breathed the air that smelled of duct tape and oil and my beer breath. I said, “The record stopped.”

Jim wiped the corners of his mouth, then turned on the parking lights. The woods lit up. Among the oaks and sassafras, the barren blackberry bushes and winter weeds, I saw five red foxes. They were bigger than I expected. They were almost like dogs. Their brick-colored coats shined from a diet of mice and crickets and occasional lucky rabbit. The slender forelegs, black as if dipped in ink, were frozen mid-step. Their expressions were a cross between a coyote’s smirk and a dog’s pleased-to-meet-you. They stood in the light, with tails poised above the ground and heads lowered and ears pricked. I had never seen anything like it. One of them sniffed the record player.

The foxes didn’t seem like animals coming out of the trees at all. It was more like looking into the souls of five beings that had chosen one wilderness over another.


On Tuesday, my mom had an appointment to get an MRI with gel contrast. MRI meant a big machine. I knew that much. It was the gel that sounded spooky. I offered to take my mom and let Jim stay home. He said that he was going to make popsicles out of fruit juice because it would be something easy for her to eat. He squeezed my shoulder on the way out, maybe feeling like we had bonded the night before, maybe feeling inspired to be better for my mom. I felt shitty about duping the foxes, like we’d ruined their night just so we could enjoy the spectacle, but it had allowed me and Jim to sit together and be honest for a little while.

My mom gave me directions to the medical facility, which was one of a dozen buildings in a large concrete compound. There were enormous lots glimmering with cars. All of those cars belonged either to sick people or to people trying to help sick people.

We went inside, checked in, and found an MRI waiting room at the end of a long hallway. My mom was walking normally and was feeling a lot better. She even seemed to have a certain unsettling confidence in that building. To her, I guess it was nothing compared to the previous procedure. In the waiting room we checked in for a second time. It was empty except for two EMS workers guarding an empty stretcher. One, asleep, was a hundred pounds overweight and the other one, old enough to be Sleepy’s father, stared at me over his reading glasses.

I said, “Is it going to hurt?”

She said, “I hope not.”

Someone with a clipboard opened a door and called my mom. She left without saying anything to me—almost like a dutiful student she went away. I guess the bland colors and stale air were meant to inspire obedience.

An hour later I heard the alien noises of the machine through the wall. When it started beeping, almost like the landing of a spaceship, the sleeping EMS worker startled awake. The dough of his stomach expanded when he breathed and the uniform strained to contain him.

The older one said, “Poor baby got woke up.”

They weren’t waiting on family members, so they could afford to slump around and make jokes. Meanwhile, I was sitting there thinking about my mom in a claustrophobic machine that would predict her future. There was only one of her. Her name was Sally.

Sleepy’s eyelids fluttered.

The older man said, “Don’t let ’em bite, baby boy.”

I accidentally made eye contact with him. I knew he’d think it was an invitation to talk. I sighed loud enough that he could hear me and maybe be dissuaded.

He looked up dramatically and sang, “Are you alone? Do you need someone? Is it too late to talk?” He cocked his head to the side. “Wait, that’s called ‘The Crying Game.’ I was thinking it was ‘The Waiting Game.’”

We were sitting in a waiting room in a medical facility and he was singing karaoke.

The door opened and they were called to pick up their patient. I glared at him. They strapped the patient into the stretcher, pushed him down the hall, and the older EMS man sucked his teeth on the way out. I was thankful to see them go. I didn’t want to strike up conversations with strangers in such a horrible place, with the peach-colored walls and TVs mounted in every waiting room playing stupid fucking Dr. Phil and stacks of AARP The Magazine.

When my mom came outside, she was walking funny. She took short steps and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

I rose and took her arm. “What happened?”

“I can already feel it leaking in my underwear,” she said. “Two full syringes.”

“Can we just leave?”

“Apparently they had to start warning people it was bluish green because so many people got scared when they saw it. Can you imagine?”

We walked through the parking lot. She was moving fast under the influence of the gel. While she waited for me to unlock the car, she said, “I’m sorry you had to bring me here. I know it’s terrible.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m sorry you’ve suffered so many disappointments.”

“Stop, okay?”

“I could have done more for you.”

“You did everything.”

“I could have been better.”

We got in the car and I slammed the door, saying, “I don’t want to hear any more. Just shut up and let’s go home. Okay? Okay. And don’t get upset,” I said, “because I love you and I don’t want you to get upset.”


When we got back to the house, my mom went in her bedroom and reclined on a towel. I suppose those feelings had been there all along and she just finally let them out, feelings of inadequacy and failure, which I was more than acquainted with. Jim went to rest with her.

I crept into the kitchen and took two of my mom’s painkillers. I deserved it. I thought, I’ll take a fucking chill pill. I didn’t bother taking it with any water. Under the wooden bowl where all of the medication was stored there were stapled papers. I pulled them out and the saw photographs of my mom’s bowel from the colonoscopy. It was like a mining tunnel. There was the big cancerous polyp, but there were also six smaller, benign polyps that littered the tunnel like boulders.

I went up to my room and got in bed, even though it was still early. The sky was just getting dark. I looked up at the flags. They were yellow, red, blue, and green.

Pippin meowed in the hall.

For fourteen hours, I slept hard.


My throat ached when I woke up. It hurt so bad that my eyes watered when I swallowed. It was Wednesday. I stuffed all of my things into my bag and then made the bed, even though I knew they’d wash the sheets as soon as I was gone. Downstairs, Jim was already rinsing out his coffee cup. He had some in a thermos for me. There were two pieces of bacon left on an electric griddle. I guessed that he’d already eaten all of the rest. He was wearing an old canvas jacket, ready to take me to the airport.

He said, “Are you alright?”

I said, “Sore throat.”

“I hope you’re not getting sick.”

I realized that a pill had probably gotten caught in my throat and burned my esophagus. It had happened to one of my coworkers at the Elkhorn, this lady who worked in the laundry room and took diet pills. It was easier to say that I was coming down with a cold than admit the truth.

My mom shuffled in the kitchen. The bathrobe was cinched around her waist.

She said, “Just when I’m feeling normal again, you have to leave.”

I touched my throat.

“I wish I didn’t have to go back.”

I went to hug her and Jim said, “If you’re sick, maybe you shouldn’t.”

My mom glared at him.

“You have to be careful,” Jim said. “That’s all.”

“You’re sick?”

Only a few days after the surgery, the tables had turned. She was worried about me.

“My throat hurts.”

“You must have picked something up yesterday.”

Ice fell inside of me. It cracked, split, and shifted. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t hug my mom goodbye. I hated myself. I’d developed bad habits since I’d moved away. I drank most days of the week and got stoned with my roommates and didn’t save any money because ski passes were expensive. I was impulsive and maybe rougher around the edges than I would have liked to admit. I did love the snow, though, and the mountains. I loved to surge down a backcountry bowl, powder rising behind my every turn like a shush at the movies. I was flexible. I was loose. I could adjust to changes in snow and terrain without any trouble. It all came naturally to me. There was nothing more satisfying than cutting a clean path down the side of a mountain. There was nothing that seemed more like a gift.

Except for my mom.

If the oncologist said that it had spread, I’d have to think seriously about if I needed to leave Montana and come back home.

There was no reason to lie about my throat. It wasn’t worth it.

“I’m not sick,” I said. “I think there’s a pill stuck in my throat.”


“I took some of your painkillers last night.”

Jim asked, “Why?”

My mom, ignoring him, said, “Did you take them with water?”


“You should have known better. I always made you take your medicine with liquids.” She was shaking her head but it wasn’t out of anger. It was just disappointment that I didn’t use common sense.

I said, “You’re mad?”

“I don’t care, Lizzie. It doesn’t matter. If you want, you can take some with you.”

She hugged me.

She said, “I’m sorry you had to see me like this.”

I could have said the same thing.

I said, “I wanted to come.”

“It might get worse.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Not yet.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

That was the most I had ever meant it.


Jim called a week later. I had just gotten home from work and it was snowing in Bozeman, even though it was thirty-four degrees outside. I wondered if it was going to be the last flurry of the season. I didn’t answer the phone immediately because I knew that as soon as I picked up, Jim would tell me about the consultation with the oncologist and what all of the imaging had revealed. As hard as it was to wait and not know, it was better than knowing anything bad. I wanted a few more minutes when anything was possible.

I went out the back door and stood in the yard. I wasn’t wearing a coat, just a turtleneck and a fleece vest that had the Elkhorn logo embroidered on it, and that was comfortable. When Jim called for the second time, I answered.

He said, “It’s not what we hoped for.”

I sat in a lawn chair and felt the snow melt beneath me and soak into my pants. It wasn’t long before my butt went numb. Jim said that my mom was taking it hard and would be able to call me tomorrow. He said that she needed time to process the information. I didn’t say much, only sat in a stupor, and eventually Jim hung up and the sky turned silver. Deer crept into the yard and I stayed very, very still.  

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