Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
“Auntie has no mercy, Oreo. She’s lived a hard life. It’s in your best interest to be good.”
Oreo seemed to calm a little, perk his ears up as if listening. When she reached into his cage again, this time he let her scoop him up, hold her in his arms. But a minute later he was kicking her chest with furious might. He leapt out of her arms and raced around the yard with mad glee. It took her an hour to capture him.
It was all Auntie’s fault, how wild he became. Because he was outside, he was able to see the sun, the trees. He envied the birds. Neighborhood cats came by to hiss at him, and he could only cower. After his experience of running around the yard, feeling the earth kick back at his heels, nibbling on a sweet blade of grass—after that he always had a wild thirst for freedom. He would never let her hold him. All he wanted was to be free of her.
His body changed. He turned into a full-grown rabbit overnight and stretched lazily, his toes sticking out of the wire cage; he occupied the full length of it. He was supposed to stay a size that would comfortably accommodate his surroundings, but in his mind’s eye, the world was no longer the wire holding him in.
Lily could no longer feed him. When she lifted the top of the cage, he would leap as high as he could to clear the height of his entrapments, and often failed, painfully bruising a rib, drawing blood, but kicking anyway. The cage had become death to him, enclosed in a circumference of piss, doo, hard nubs of grain. He wanted to drink from ponds, chase flies, sleep in the shade.
Lily had to feed him through the grates, not daring to lift the cage door. She shoved whittled carrots through the wire. Oreo ignored the food. She thought maybe she should let him go, even if he ran away. Then she thought of the neighborhood cats chasing him, catching him, biting into his soft flesh. She convinced herself she knew what was good for him because she was the human and he the animal. And then she thought that Auntie was right, rabbits don’t make good pets. They were too stupid. She couldn’t imagine Mimi cutting himself against wire to be free. He had enough sense to be domesticated.
The summer months dragged on. It got hotter. Lily didn’t go outside much. There was nothing to lure her. Too hot to dig a hole to bury a time capsule or pull the wings off flies. Besides, she was getting too old for that behavior. Alan had been ignoring her lately, becoming more secretive, gaining more weight. He no longer made himself available to lob lemons out of their yard.
Oreo has lost novelty and her affection. She fed him grudgingly. Changed his shavings only so that Auntie wouldn’t blame her for his stench. When Auntie threatened to bring a friend over to hang Oreo up by his haunches, Lily no longer cried. Oreo had grown fat and mean. She no longer loved him, and had grown sick of the responsibility of an ugly old rabbit. And to top this off, Oreo had begun to bark.
It was easy for her to forget him. They left one bright morning for the park, a barbeque, because Auntie felt like it and had dragged Uncle Yiu from out of his slumbers. They packed the car with marinated meat, charcoal, and blankets for sitting. They brought along stale bread to feed the ducks. Lily caught a jar full of guppies from the park’s lake. In one of his rare moments, Alan had been nice to her. They made a fishing pole out of a stick and string. Auntie surprised them with a kite. They came home hot, sweaty, exhausted with happiness. It was one of the last days they behaved as a functioning family.
On the drive back, Lily remembered she forgot to move Oreo’s cage. Auntie moved Oreo away from the house at night so that he wouldn’t spray the walls with urine. Lily did not bring him back into the shade that morning, or fill his plastic bottle with water. She did the mental calculations, thinking about how hot it was. How she had sweated profusely chasing the kite. How dark and tan she had become in the span of one afternoon, so that Auntie made fun of her.
She went outside, her heart beating carefully. She looked towards Oreo’s cage with some hope, but purposely unfocusing her eyes if there wasn’t. There was still a chance he was only a little sunburnt. With dread she let her eyes drop into focus.
She ran back into the house, screaming. Auntie asked what was the matter, and couldn’t pry Lily’s clenched and rigid body from the couch. She went outside to check for herself. She found Oreo’s remains: every limb splayed out, fur sticking up in meringue tufts, tongue hanging out piteously. The metal of the cage was scalding. The water bottle dry as dust. She instructed Uncle Yiu to throw Oreo away before he began to stink.
She came back to find Lily sitting up, quiet, awaiting the verdict. Auntie couldn’t help it. She laughed a little. She laughed because she was used to laughing when she felt a deep sense of regret and shame. The smirk made Lily angry, made her point and accusing finger and call Auntie a murderer. So Auntie got angry and huffed out of the room, feeling all the burden of her niece’s misery.
Later, Lily regretted not preventing Uncle Yiu from throwing Oreo into the trash with everything else. She recognized Oreo’s outline in the black plastic sack on the driveway. She should have given him a decent burial, but who was she fooling? She could have never picked Oreo up with her bare hands. Not with his eyes still open, his fur in all directions like someone had styled him with dippity-do hair gel.
Lily wanted a small life to hold, to care for, in order to prove she was good. She had a lonely heart. It was Oreo’s nudge on the fist that did her in. A nudge that said, “Wait, I’m shy. But wait.” She took the nudge as affirmation because she of all people understood that message: Wait. Don’t leave yet. Give me time to become unafraid. She understood that more than anything else.
When they left, the house was in disarray. They had sold everything that was of worth. Abandoned everything else. Mimi had followed her through rooms as she gathered up jewelry, tools, photographs, money. He had loved her young brothers and was patient when they tugged at his ears and tried to sit on him while he slept. He had looked at her as if asking if it was his turn to be picked up. He knew what the answer was by the way he did not wag his tail, but followed close behind just to be near her for a few moments more. She couldn’t leave him as he was, with the house overturned, most of the food sold. She looked everywhere for something to leave Mimi. And there in the corner, a bag of rice, untouched. Though there wasn’t much time, she boiled a large pot of water to cook the rice. And when she was done, she filled every bowl and cup in the house, and set them on the ground for Mimi to eat. A hundred bowls of rice. Mimi gingerly stepped among them, careful not to knock over her work.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t take you. There are children. They wouldn’t understand.” Forces beyond her control had stepped in, as large as war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the takeover of an entire nation by those who demanded to be free of foreign control. It was bound to have an effect on her small, unassuming life.
When she left, he stood by the open door, next to the rice, not running after her. He moved his tail once, as if saying goodbye. They would see each other in the next life, certainly.
Later, she would learn from neighbors that he did not touch one bowl. When they came to forage through the abandoned things, he was resigned in one corner, refusing to lift himself. They gathered the cooked rice, and he did not try to stop them. When the soldiers arrived, they shot him between his gentle eyes and ate him. But he was already gone. His soul on a quest to find hers.
They didn’t know why she shared these stories. Didn’t even remember the first time she told them, but she did again and again, half consciously, impulsively, until Lily and Alan requested them, needed them, became part of them. They stepped into her shoes and cooked 100 bowls of rice and cried because they couldn’t save their friend. It was their story as much as it was her own.
Dinh Prince is a native of California’s Central Valley. She received her MA in English Literature from the University of Oregon, and her MFA in Fiction from Arizona State University. She has served as a Teach for America Corps Member in at-risk public schools, and has been teaching and working in law firms since. Her writing has previously appeared in Mudseason Review, Ilanot Review, Platte Valley Review, A Generation Defining Itself, Like Water Burning Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, Stolen Stories, Fawlt Magazine, and Growing Up Girl: an Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces.