Photograph: Taylor Castle; Prop Stylist: Ashley Irons
For many, Easter is the profound culmination of a long period of repentance and soul-searching that commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection three days later. I’m Jewish, so it’s mostly about jelly beans.
Which would be fine if they weren’t accompanied by the only animal on earth capable of triggering a sweaty midnight dread that penetrates to my deepest core: a rabbit. My fingers tremble at the keyboard as I imagine the pointy teeth, the grotesquely elongated ears, and the hypnotic eyes just nearsighted enough to pierce a man’s soul.
You can dress up a cottontail and turn it into a cartoon with a basket of neon eggs, but you cannot conceal a malevolent heart. Rabbit.org describes the rabbit psyche as “mysterious, sometimes paradoxical,” which really means “cute but capable of eating your liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti with little to no provocation.”
I’m not sure where my bunnyhate originated, but I know exactly when it came to a head. Thirteen years ago, a couple was enjoying a Sunday hike at Morton Arboretum in Lisle when an adorable rabbit loped up and jumped into their arms. (I was not half of that couple; I would have soiled my skivvies the second the beast made eye contact.) This was no wild hare; someone had released a pet into the suburban prairie, and the Machiavellian quadruped charmed the couple until they took her home.
At the time, my wife and I were too into our careers to think about children, but Sarah spotted the ad in the paper—“Bunny Needs Home”—and went to meet this plucky white rabbit with black spots and a crooked ear. She fell in love and, unaware of my anxiety, brought her home. The plush-coated scamp was a hit with her second-grade class, lounging in laps as kids honed their math skills with flash cards. They named her Charlotte and adored her. Everyone did. My in-laws, certain she was as close as they would get to a grandchild, showered Charlotte with affection.
But a darkness that only I seemed to recognize, or set off, lurked within the rabbit. As if sensing my weakness, the same cheery rascal that spent her days cuddling with seven-year-olds came home and terrorized me, biting and screaming, befouling my shirts, and lunging from dark corners in ankle-nipping ambush. Not content to insinuate herself into my nightmares, Charlotte routinely leaped onto our bed and clawed my eyelids.
Once a week I’d go to a restaurant, order rabbit, and eat every bite.
I did not want my amoral downy nemesis dead, but when Charlotte was accidentally crushed beneath a foot, I did not cry. Nor did I rejoice. I exhaled.
The foot in question belonged to my father-in-law, who had been bunnysitting with Sarah’s mom in Hyde Park while we visited friends in Joliet. Hysterical, he called Sarah’s brother and sister-in-law, themselves fellow grandchild deniers, and the four of them rushed the patient to the Skokie Animal Hospital. At which point they called us.
The vet suggested wiring Charlotte’s fractured jaw, but the surgery would cost $1,000, provide little chance of recovery, and do nothing for the mangled eye socket. Certain family members wanted to go for it. Certain others suggested donating $1,000 to a shelter. After much handwringing, we decided to put Charlotte to sleep. That night, Sarah and I drank so much at a house party in Ukrainian Village—she out of sorrow, me out of relief—that we crashed on a friend’s floor.
The following morning, Sarah roused me and ordered me to get dressed. We were driving to Skokie, and then we were taking Charlotte to the summer house in Indiana to give her a proper burial. I asked what that meant exactly. “I don’t know,” Sarah said. “But we’re not cremating her. She’s a Jewish rabbit.”
When the receptionist at the animal hospital handed over the cardboard box, I nearly choked on my own fear. Neither Sarah nor I opened the box. We drove to Indiana in silence, the tiny tomb of my vanquished tormentor in the back seat, while I tried to keep down my breakfast.
Four distraught family members awaited our arrival in Michigan City. Fighting back tears, Sarah’s father handed me a beer and a shovel. Apparently, no one else could bear to dig the grave. Picking a spot next to the summer house, I dug exactly the kind of pathetic hole you’d expect from a hung-over rabbit-haunted man in 95-degree heat.
“You can’t bury her in the box,” my father-in-law barked when I finished. “We need a shroud.”
“She should take nothing with her when she leaves this world. So God can judge her on her deeds.”
Deeds? She’s a @#$%ing rabbit.
Sarah’s mom produced a tattered American flag, and I was forced to do what I dreaded most: open the box. In my gin-soaked state, I half expected Reanimated Zombie Charlotte. Instead, she had a chillingly indifferent expression—a rictus of disgust at her fate—that appeared to me over the next 11 years as recurring night horrors. I nudged her rigid carcass into the flag and lowered her down.
Beneath the blistering Indiana sun, we took turns heaping dirt into the pitiful chasm. Together, we launched into the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited when someone dies: “Yit-ga-dal ve-yit-ka-dash shemei raba . . . May his great name be exalted and sanctified.” Then we said goodbye. A week later, Sarah’s mom, an artist, made a gravestone.
In the ensuing years, we’ve had a handful of pets and produced our share of grandchildren, but Charlotte still haunts me. I alone know that her life was dishonest and her burial unholy, a travesty of a sacred tradition and downright un-American, because you can’t bury a terrorist in a U.S. flag. There are times in the dark of night when the wind pushes the trees against the summer house deck, the creaking and whining like a slow nightmare, and all I can hear is the screaming of the rabbit. And I shudder with fright.