Often kids test the limits of rules and upbringing. My
cynicism seems a little premature. But then…. sometimes a child
can learn much from imagemistakes. Let
there be drama, tenderness and treasure in these three stories.
Aunt Esmé is visiting, and whether it is the way she entertains us,
giving mum time to relax, or some other quality within her, I can’t
say. Only that the family changes for the better when she is here.
Mum says she is a maiden aunt, but I’m unsure what that means,
whether she’s a real aunt, or one of mum’s old school friends. I
don’t really understand about aunts and cousins. Like grandad, she
travels by train from Melbourne, bringing very little luggage, and
yet manages to dress with variety every day, as if, like The Magic
Pudding, her suitcase is endowed with strange, bottomless
qualities. However, what intrigues me the most about Esmé is her patience; her calm moderation, an elusive and inexhaustible kind of
saintliness, far too improbable to be genuine. All mum’s contemporaries have strong, definable personalities. They are loud, haughty, cultured or cantankerous, but Esmé has a deep stillness, a presence that sits back and observes, neither judging nor malicious. And while I appreciate her gentleness, I am puzzled by my loathing of her sweet and irritatingly genuine kindness. She must be around the same age as mum, though leaner and fair, with a fine skin free of blemishes and lines. Her long grey hair is the only feature that betrays her age, and she wears it in a chignon, skilfully caught up with silver pins and combs. Even her room has absorbed her persona, the cool green and walnut brightening to Mediterranean turquoise and gold, and there’s a fragrance of lavender, sweetened by fruitiness, perhaps roses or gardenias.
Outwardly she is what I would call matronly: an ideal Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and while she exudes a familiar elegance, she
speaks with an accent, the lilt of something Scandinavian. I always forget to ask her about that until she’s gone. Then her presence rises from the furnishings and resonates through the house. I’m sure Esmé is more accustomed to city life. Her clothes are quiet yet stylish, the colours muted but expensive. And her hands are soft, unstained by soil or labour. I wonder again if she is a teacher but forget to ask, as if she has cast a spell over my curiosity.

Each morning she appears in an elegant, pale green dressing gown, with her hair cascading in a long braid. She sits across the table from me, her blue eyes clear and untroubled, and when she smiles her whole face surrenders to the joy of it. After I leave, she sits with mum for a second cup of coffee. There are always a few hours free in the morning. Esmé likes to sit on the veranda, reading her newspaper or a book. But she is pleased to see me and smiles in welcome as I approach. I invite her for a walk around the yard to show her my latest projects: the hiding places, the toys and treasures, all new since her last visit.

Our chatter is unfaltering as we cross muddy pools, climb through fences or gates, and her passage is accomplished with the grace of a
gentlewoman. I am intrigued, curious, and even suspicious. How can there be a female in this house who is so genuinely nice? There has
to be a catch, a dark side, some weakness soon to give way. I believe the only way to rid myself of these misgivings is to set a
test for her, to confirm my suspicions, once and for all.

My brother, Nick, and dad are busy in the machinery shed and I invite Esmé to walk with me down through the farm. I want to show her my archery game. We open the wide gate, and enter the paddock. I fire my first arrow and collect it as we walk. I guide her towards the rabbit paddock. Once through the fence we continue to the L-shaped stand of pines, and weave among their craggy trunks. I show her the rabbit warren. She is delighted to find pinecones and gathers some for the sitting room fire.

‘They smell so lovely,’ she declares, ‘and they leave heaps of glowing coals.’

She tells me of her childhood then, of a time she calls The Great Depression.

‘Such simple things as fuel and meat were scarce,’ she explains.

I suggest we return later with a bag to collect more of them, as an armful will hardly suffice. Esmé agrees and leaves her collection at the foot of a tree. We continue down to the hawthorn hedgerow where I play the first half of my game. On the return journey, I show her the dwarf pine tree and tell her of last summer’s harvest. As we approach the cattle yard, I lead her on a detour through a small paddock, deliberately failing to inform her about its only resident, a surly Aberdeen Angus bull.

Well into the field, I suddenly take off, sprinting to the fence, and yelling, ‘See ya!’ as I slip through the wires. I dash passed the dairy and only when I’m safely across the gate do I peer back over my shoulder. Unaware of danger, Esmé continues across the paddock, neither hurried nor troubled by my departure. I climb into the fork of the big cypress and watch her approach to the gate, studying her face for signs of agitation. None. Impossible! She passes beneath me and continues towards the house, her gentle smile, and even unfaltering. As I watch her approach the garden gate, I realise what a stupid prank I’ve played. Having failed to reveal her imperfections, I have left myself open to ridicule. I feel foolish and embarrassed. How can I face her now and explain my spurious, erratic behaviour?

‘Christ!’ I mutter, grimacing at my own stupidity. Already she’ll be telling mum of my desertion in the middle of the bull paddock. How can I get out of this? I pace the lower half of the yard, where sheds obscure me from the house but, the longer I wait, the harder it becomes to justify my actions.

Finally, with the imperious ring of the lunch bell, I realise I must face up to mum’s recriminations. I kick off my boots and go straight into the laundry to wash. Mum and Esmé are seated at the table in the kitchen. Their voices give no clue of their conspiracy to nab me. I take longer than normal, tidying my hair and straightening my clothes. With my heart pounding, I enter the kitchen. My eyes meet Esmé’s quizzical frown.

‘I’m sorry,’ I blurt, ‘I’m sorry I ran off, Auntie Esmé. I really needed to go to the toilet.’

‘That’s all right, dear. I thought it must have been something like that.’ She gives no indication of offence, and mum seems oblivious to the remark. So, she didn’t dob me in? Puzzled and deflated, I sit down and reach for my napkin. It is a normal lunch, with the usual conversation and the radio burbling in the background. While the others sit back, enjoying the last of their meal, I sweat in a pool of agony, cursing my own foolishness and dishonesty, for having destroyed any path to forgiveness. And there being no mention of the incident only adds to my frustration. Even later in the day, when we return to gather the pinecones with Nick, the subject remains aloof. Esmé is as patient, warm and gentle as ever; not a flicker or tone of disappointment, not a hint of distrust, no words of spiteful rapprochement. I will suffer for several years over this, until an opportunity arises and I confess to mum. But, instead of giving me a dressing down, she laughs heartily.

‘You mean she had no idea it was the bull paddock?’

‘Not as far as I know.’

She laughs again, all the more for realising the remorse I’ve suffered. ‘You do realise it was a silly thing to do?’ she adds, chuckling at the thought of it. But it’s not funny for me. I deserve a scolding and carry the shame as a festering wound. Aunt Esmé visits again, as sweet and sincere as ever. Shame mutes me, and I am unable to confess my guilt and disgrace.

* * *

image

 

After a few good years of rain and cool summers, the farm swarms with creatures, some engaging me for the first time. A ringtail possum has moved into one of my favourite hiding spots in the loft above the dairy cool room. At dusk, it makes its way across to the orchard via the cypress hedge, where it feeds on fruits and flowers. The lush pastures bring a plague of insects and seeds, drawing birds and rodents, easy pickings for the foxes, hawks and snakes. The rabbits make new burrows and on fine evenings, I sit on the wide gate, and watch them. Nick sools Husso after them, but dad’s patience is at an end.

‘Soon the blighters will be hopping around the blasted vegetable garden,’ he grumbles, bringing out his rifle for the cull.

‘Dad, teach me how to use the gun?’ Nick begs. Dad agrees, gives him lessons and supervises his practice. Nick rests the rifle on the clothes line fence, and fires at paper targets propped upon bricks at the hayshed. It seems a risky place for a rifle range. And, sure enough, late one afternoon a bullet whistles passed mum’s ear as she leaves the workshop with a basket of apples. Rifle practice moves to the paddocks where rabbits provide practical, living targets. Dad buys telescopic sights and helps Nick install and focus them.

After further practice and adjustment, the shoot begins in earnest. After dinner we pile into the ute and sit with my chin on the window ledge, watching while dad drives. Out on the tray, Nicks braces himself on the roof, yelling instructions as the headlamps and spotlight reveal prey. We wind around the paddock, scooping through shallow drains, bouncing over ridges and timber hidden beneath swathes of tall rye. The ute burbles and surges, grass brushing the undercarriage. I watch the bobbing white tails flag victims in the spotlight. We pause, and
Nick steadies himself, legs wide, leaning against the rear window of the cabin. I hold my breath, willing the rabbits to run, but they sit frozen mid stride, blinded and confused by the light. I grimace at the rifle crack. He misses several, but an hour’s shooting provides a brace of them, now dangling from Nick’s hand as he strides manfully to the big cypress tree.

Beneath the light of a pressure lamp dad teaches him how to butcher the tiny bodies, ripping away their skins. I flee to the house but their flesh arrives, still warm, and we enjoy a rich casserole of rabbit, bacon and rich gravy. I have to admit it’s delicious but baulk when dad
suggests we destroy the warrens.

‘But, dad! How can a dozen rabbits harm so many acres of farmland?’ I know my question is sentimental.
He shakes his head.

‘Couldn’t we leave their burrows alone and just  hunt them for food now and then?’ I persist.

‘Too many of them,’ he snaps. ‘It’s the height of their breeding season and they’re out of control.’ His response is harsh and he softens. ‘They’re vermin, dear. They don’t belong here. The Poms brought them.’

‘Along with foxes and Scotch thistles,’ mum adds. ‘They’re ruining the paddocks and undermining those old pines. They have to go.’

‘What if Nick and I dig the burrows out. Get rid of em that way?’ I suggest. ‘Then we can catch and eat em like this one.’ I scoop gravy onto a
piece of potato, waiting for Nick to agree. Dad thinks for a bit. He doesn’t like the idea, I can tell, but he’s prepared to give us an opportunity to learn.

‘All right,’ he decides. ‘But you must start this weekend. I don’t want the problem dragging on, or these nightly debates.’

‘Beauty,’ says Nick.

In the morning we head down to the rabbit paddock, me pushing a wheel barrow laden with digging tools and a bag for our quarry. Nick carries the rifle and Husso trots alongside. We choose a warren with fresh droppings nearby, and Nick sets to work on his side of the tree with a pick. I use the mattock, ripping into the soil. The tree roots are bone-jarring. Clearing my dig with the spade, I get down on all fours and scrape soil away. Blisters smart in my palms. The burrow continues, leading deeper. I rise and dig again, striking another tangle of roots. At first the mattock tears through them but soon it’s wedged tight, the blade buried in sinewy green wood.

While not a warm day, we’re sweaty and puffed from our exertions. I peel off my jumper and hang it over a branch. Husso noses in. There are
fresh rabbit smells everywhere and he’s mightily excited, waving his tail and whimpering as he pounces, feints and barks around our legs. I’ve produced quite a cavity on my side, revealing a seemingly endless burrow. I grope down inside it, keen to find soft fur and quivering whiskers. Nick pauses, leaning on his pick handle, watching.

‘Can’t feel a thing,’ I exclaim.

‘Stacks more places in there,’ he says, wiping his sweaty forehead on his shirtsleeve.

Tired and disappointed with my progress, I head round to inspect Nick’s efforts. He’s cleared a huge hole, cutting into the belly of the warren. ‘Should be kittens in there,’ he gasps between breaths.

‘What?’

‘Kittens. That’s what you call baby rabbits.’

‘I do?’

He kneels down and Husso bounds in to help.

‘Have you got your burrow blocked? He asks. ‘Cos if you haven’t the little buggers will get away.’

I scurry back and block the hole, stomping the spade across it emphatically. A couple of shattered tree branches prove useful down the other openings.

‘Get outa there!’ Nick growls at Husso, under his feet as reaches for the pick. I return to watch him dig. Huss waits, poised to leap. We
crouch now, expecting a rabbit to break any second. We’re so tense and focussed we fail to notice dad’s arrival.

‘How are you going?’ He startles us.

‘Nothing yet, dad,’ says Nick.

‘Huss looks keen. You think they’d be running in all directions with your digging.’
He stands to one side, hands on his hips, grinning down at our efforts.

‘Well we haven’t sighted one, yet.’ I add.

‘Let’s have a look.’ Dad steps down beside Nick and studies the gaping hole. ‘Reach in there and see if you can feel anything, Nick.’

He reaches down, groping as I had done.

‘Nothing,’ and his exasperation shows.
‘Times like this you need ferrets,’ says dad.

‘Maybe the neighbours have some,’ I suggest.

‘Don’t think so.’ Dad sounds pretty sure. ‘Let’s have a look around your side.’

Clambering over, dad extracts the spade. We watch him swing the pick, cutting through the earth, cutting it like cake. then he steps aside while Nick shovels the loose dirt away.

There’s movement behind the wood at the next burrow. Huss spots it first and pushes in, whining and digging frantically.

‘Stand aside, Huss,’ dad growls, but the collie ignores him. Nick grabs him by the collar, and pulls him back, inspecting the burrow.

‘Reckon we’ve got ‘im cornered now.’ He removes the plug of wood as dad plugs the other, and begins digging. I crouch behind him like a wicket keeper, while Huss winds back and forth, agitated and barking.

‘Gotcha!’ Nick shouts, throwing himself on a blur of brown. He rises in triumph, holding a struggling rabbit aloft by its scruff.

‘Gimme a look,’ I beg, but it’s too late. He’s snapped its neck with a vicious yank, and holds it for me to take, the head lolling on his arm. ‘One
rabbit ready for the pot!’ He declares.

I take it and sit nearby, placing the limp body on my lap, and arranging its limbs. The black eyes are still open, wide with shock. Its tail is damp where it’s wet itself in terror. I stroke the fur with my fingers, marveling at the tweedy colours made by so many shades of hair; the soft
creamy fur of its belly. Beneath wiry black whiskers the soft nose is still. Husso is of two minds: whether to sniff the prospective meal or wait for a fresh one. I watch the men work on, alternately digging and clawing roots and soil aside. I lean back on my arms, setting my teeth against the sting of broken blisters, the rabbit draped across my lap.

Upon reaching the heart of the warren, the men call it quits.

‘I find it hard to believe there’s only one rabbit in all of this,’ Nick declares, his voice rough with thirst
and disappointment.

‘There’ll be burrows we’ve missed,’ dad reassures him. ‘Let Huss in. See what he thinks.’ Nick stands back and Husso digs keenly. With hope renewed, Nick hauls him back out of the way, and resumes digging.

‘There’s nothing there now,’ says dad, finally. Nick wanders off to cool down and have a pee. On his way back he calls out.

‘Hoi! Over here!’

Placing the rabbit on my jumper, I hurry to where the men are inspecting something on the ground: another burrow, an old one, but still in use.

‘Little buggers got out here, I reckon,’ Nick spits, slipping the spade into the soil above the hole and stomping it home with his boot. Here the tree roots are sparse and the digging easier. ‘Look! It heads back over there to our dig. Clever little bastards.’ He’s scornful, shaking his head
in defeat.

‘That’s their escape tunnel.’ Dad purses his lips. ‘I don’t think we’ll make a dint in the population at this rate. I’ll start baiting them. And that means,’ he warns, looking across at me. ‘That means, madam, there’s to be no more digging down here.’
‘In fact you can both stay away for a few weeks. You don’t want myxo.’

We nod solemnly, both disappointed. I feel the chance to hold a live rabbit slipping away. Returning to the dig I collect our tools in the barrow, and place our prize on top of the load. Then, sliding the gear into the ute tray, I hop up and haul the barrow after me. I sit there, watching the men talking, my right hand resting against the rabbit’s ears, reaching for their softness and caressing them. I try to pull the eyelids closed, like I’ve seen cowboys do in the movies, but they open again. Perhaps gas or baits are kinder than this.

‘Kinder to you, maybe,’ I growl at myself. I feel as empty as those eyes.

*****

After a fortnight, we follow dad down the paddocks to inspect the warrens. I expect the stink of dead rabbits, but the only evidence of is the absence of new burrowings.

Then Nick calls. ‘Dad!’ There is urgency in his voice.
We gather round boxthorn. Nick indicates a small hole, freshly dug, and well hidden beneath the thorny tangle. So easy to miss.

‘So much for eradication,’ dad sighs. ‘Missed it, somehow.’ He scratches the crown of his head, clearly annoyed. While I appreciate his frustration, I release a quiet sigh of relief. The farm won’t be the same without rabbits bobbing about. We stare down at the freshly dug soil. ‘They’re industrious little coots, aren’t they?’ Nick shakes his head, knowing how hard it is to dig a hole with a pick, let alone small furry paws.

‘Well,’ says dad. ‘Can’t stand around here all day.’

I remain as the others return to the ute.

‘Coming Jo?’ dad calls.

‘Na. Think I’ll walk, thanks.’ I wander round the stand of pines. The ground is riven by protruding roots, and scabby pinecones in all states of decay. There must be half a century of tree bits under my feet. I try to imagine grandad planting the saplings long ago and now, standing fifty feet tall, with craggy bark as thick as my arm, they still provide shelter and shade. I sniff the resin on my fingers and stand, heading for the fence. But something catches my eye: a green pinecone, perhaps. I reach to pick it up, to throw it back but, peering closer, I see it is a small rabbit crouching motionless in the grass. At first I’m unsure whether to touch it, and kneel down slowly. The creature is panting, its eyes almost closed, and there is a damp line where tears have run down and soaked its fur. Odd. It doesn’t run away? I reach out and rest the back of my fingers against its side. It tenses a little, but remains.

Unable to resist, I reach forward and pick it up, resting the feet on the palm of my hand. It seems incredibly placid for a wild rabbit, its nose twitching with each breath, as if it’s daydreaming or dosing. I hold it up for a closer look, my hands ready should it leap and fall. There is a feeling wetness pooling in my palm, and it trickles down my arm. Astonished, I lift the bunny gently to see what’s happened. Its head falls to one side, the body warm and limp, dead in my hands.
Back in the kitchen, the family is gathered for morning tea.

‘What’ya got, Jo?’ Nick reads the look on my face.

I can’t reply. My lips and chin are clamped tight, my eyes tearful.

‘What’s wrong?’ He spots my arm pressed against my jumper. ‘Have you hurt yourself? What happened?’

Mum and dad turn to see.

I sit down. ‘Oh, look,’ mum croons. ‘A baby rabbit.’

Nick comes round to peer over my shoulder. ‘It’s dead,’ is all I manage, unable to separate my words from the pain.
‘It’s only a rabbit,’ dad snorts.

I pull gently at its ears, willing warmth and life to return. Amidst all the fuss, the spirit of the hapless creature is pulling at mine and I don’t want to let go.

‘Reckon myxo’s got it, dad,’ Nick determines. ‘Look. Its eyes and nose are all runny.’

As I shield the hapless creature from the profanity of their discussion, only mum understands, and scrounges for a shoebox, lining it with tissue paper. She places it on the table in front of me and everyone watches as I place the rabbit in. Fitting the lid I stare down at the box, solemn, silent and tearful.

‘Better go and wash your hands, dear,’ mum suggests.

I nod. ‘It wee’d on me.’

‘Probably frightened,’ dad says. ‘Where’d you find it?’

‘On the grass. Out in the open. Didn’t even move when I picked it up. Just wee’d on me and died.’

I hear the murmur of their voices as I wash my hands. I re-enter the kitchen, and as I button up my clean shirt I realise, ‘Myxo’s catching, isn’t it dad?’

‘Not humans, no. Only rabbits.’

‘Good. I don’t want to know how that rabbit felt.’

‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘Must be nasty. Bit like the flu, I’m told.’

‘Where are you going to bury it, Jo?’ Nick wants to help. I hadn’t thought that far.

Mum places the box on the hearth.

‘Perhaps in the orchard,’ he suggests.

‘Yeah,’ I agree. ‘That’d be nice.’ I sit down. ‘Under the mulberry tree. Lots of fresh grass shoots there for a rabbit spirits.’

Everyone smiles and a respectful silence descends.

*****

Nick watches on as I dig the hole. ‘There’ll be no ceremony or cross.’, I explain.’Well, we don’t know if it’s a Christian rabbit, do we?’
I place the box in the bottom of the hole. Not too deep, I remind myself. Room for it to dig its way out, if it’s not really dead. I haven’t buried a creature before, and make it up as I go. I look at Nick. I haven’t a clue what to say. He shrugs. We fall into an
awkward silence, staring at the mound of soil, but soon get giggly and silly.

* * * * *

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