NORA L. JAMIESON
The Rabbits, My Mother, My Dead
Many years ago I set myself a writing project, a soul project really. To go back and claim my legacy from my dead, being those I had known, and my ancestors, being those from whom I was descended but did not know. I had for years searched among the ruins of my life, the wounds, working to heal, and now I wanted to find the as yet unearthed or unacknowledged gifts my dead had given me. My legacy. When I thought about my mother, small stories came to mind – her listening for the thrush’s arrival in spring, her speaking about the cracking of the cold trees in winter, her never leaving an argument unfinished, always returning to talk it through. And when I thought about my very first memory, there was the bunny.
I was four when she rescued an infant bunny from the lush circular garden that lay at the center of our yard. Not as tiny in my hand as in the large and capable hands of my mother, the bunny was a silky slip of fur. I watched her hold the rabbit, gently coaxing it to feed from an eye dropper filled with cow’s milk before laying it in a box in the mudroom.
The same room where, that evening, in the large grey set tub, she would wash two squirming bodies, my brother and I, he in one side, me in the other. The metal sinks would be cool against our skin, slick with soap in the hot summer evening.
Houses had mudrooms then, places where the day’s labor could be washed from hands and bodies. Rooms where the food and the dead could be kept cold in winter, cool in the summer. A liminal place between the outside world and the inner hive of home, where all of the day could be shed, washed, dropped. Shoes, encrusted with dirt and manure, sat on newspapers, awaiting early morning occupation in gardens and fields. Soiled clothes lay in piles awaiting the labor of women’s hands. Jackets hung from hooks waited for winter, summer, spring and fall, along with clippers, pruners, drying herbs, bicycle tires, hats, various tools, brooms and dust pan. Cupboards held all the occasional but necessary mysteries of running a house – twine, mouse traps, rubber bands, rags, seeds, tarps, nails, tire patches, Christmas tree stands, and more. Dripping umbrellas and boots shed water onto newspapers, covering a linoleum floor scattered with garden pots, trowels, boxes of canning jars.
And a wooden box holding a single orphaned bunny.
Every morning of that rabbit’s short life I’d get up to make my way down the steep narrow stairs in my nightgown to squat down by the box. I see that child there still, summer breezes blowing through the screens while shadows of trees and sunlight play over that little girl, her feet cool on the linoleum floor, her breath held while she watches and waits intently for signs of life, for the tiny beat of pulse.
And then one morning the bunny is dead. My body remembers as if it were today – crouching, seeing, knowing, time slowing, touching the little cold body. The heart contracting in on itself, the veil falling and changing everything. In the way of crazy wisdom, this veil does not obscure, it reveals. There is no escaping the immediate mutation into one who now knows death. The one who now knows there is a veil and it is thin. This knowledge enters into her. Into me. Fast and undeniable. Like lightning. It is a preparation. I will make this descent many times before I am ten. With a father, a grandmother, with an aunt, an uncle, with a grandfather. But this time is the only time I will be allowed to be present to dying, to death, to touch, to attend. To really know.
* * *
At thirty-six, I apprenticed with an herbal healer and witch on her farm in rural New York, learning herbs, seasonal holy days, myth, cycles, women’s wisdom and mysteries from an outrageous, outspoken, marvelous, wild, unpredictable, loving and, at times, rageful wise woman.
Apprentices work to learn and these are hot and sweaty days of labor. We muck out goat barns, weed gardens, chop wood for winter, and keep the goats out of the neighbor’s garden. An important chore is to deliver water to panting rabbits raised for meat.
One day I entered the kitchen to the rasping of steel on stone, finding my teacher holding a large steel knife in one hand, sweeping it across whetstone held in the other, honing the edge in the definitive and dramatic movements of the hag’s ritual. Her body is full of the resolve and focus required for such a holy task, what she calls giving death.
Later on, I will think long and hard on this understanding to give death instead of taking life. Is it really a gift, or is the language an avoidance of the real truth of life, that we take another life to nourish our own?
She gathers us at the rabbit coop where she chooses a fat black rabbit, whom she and her partner hold between them while they sing “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which I have never heard and don’t understand. I stand watching, thinking of Paul Shepherd’s phrase – “I eat you and you eat me” – and how all life consumes life. How this is the most honest way to procure one’s meat, how this is a sacred ritual.
Until she offers me the knife. “Nora, would you give death?”
I look at the knife, at the rabbit, then into my teacher’s eyes to see the loving challenge there. Here is where the teachings become real. Everything dies and we are nourished by the dead.
But I have never given death and don’t know how. I am afraid that in my unskillfulness and fear I will cause suffering. Not without shame, I decline. I cannot.
She is kind about my reluctance. Her partner gently pulls the rabbit’s head back, exposing her neck, and, in one swift, unhesitating motion, she slices through the rabbit’s throat. Blood pours on the ground. It is a palpable moment of leaving, an uptake of something on the move. Tears course down my face. And before I know that I will, I ask for the head.
I cannot eat the rabbit dinner that night without queasiness, without a sense of remorse that I’d never felt for the meat that has been slaughtered in an unholy way for me. The act of giving death, my refusal, asking for the head is a teaching that will unfold over time. I think back then, I had a sense that to put the severed head into the woods, to offer it to the animals was to trash it like garbage, a sacrilege in light of the enormity of giving death.
I understand now that putting the head of the rabbit into the woods would have been an offering, a participation in the cycle of life feeding life, that all of life is required by some living thing. Asking for the head was a way of honoring it. But even so, there was something else that motivated me, something mysterious.
It was years before I understood that on that day I heard the call of the hag, the old woman who watches over death, who knows the cycles of birth, life, and the funereal rites. She has called me my whole life, I suspect, and she is in my ancestral blood. But then, in that moment, my gestures seemed intuitively right, yet utterly wrong.
I boil the head to loosen and peel back the skin, staving off disgust and remorse, a sense that I am being ghoulish and greedy, twinned by a conviction that I am engaging in something familiar and holy.
I learn that it is not easy to get to the bone, to peel away the flesh, the fat, to leach the grease. Life has a tenacious hold on itself. I pick out the brains and remove the eyes. It is a labor in which one cannot deny what one is doing. After boiling and scraping, the bone emerges. The skull with its planes and intricacy are stunning, the beautiful teeth, the snaking sutures, the sloping forehead, the innermost enduring structure I hold in my hands.
It will be many years before I know that in the Buddhist Chod practice and for the Celts, the skull is highly valued as the cauldron, the place where spirit resides, the cup, the chalice full of blood. That some of the indigenous peoples of North American honored the skull of bear, as a way to honor bear spirit. That many peoples believe the soul enters and leaves through the little opening at the top of the head. Before I will connect the memory of my mother’s care of the bunny with my care of them. Perhaps my ancestors were speaking in my blood that day when I asked for the skull of the rabbit, an instinctual remembering.
And maybe it was an ancestral remembering, when years later, I, too, rescued cottontail bunnies, like my mother had before me. Rabbits are very difficult to sustain without their mother’s milk, and whenever one died, which was often, I knew the same contraction, the same veil, the same silent and invisible life sweeping through and out as I did when I was four and again when I was thirty six. Always profound, never easy, it was a sorrow I accepted because it is life, this cycle of birth, life and death and I too, and everyone I love will walk that way some day.
Sometimes, though, they thrived as had three rabbits I released on the land one summer morning after a healing circle the evening before for my seriously ill friend. Before the ceremony, she sat waiting, companioned by the three caged bunnies who would soon be freed to clover and sun, and inevitable death wearing the face of hawk or fox or coyote. They were companions in fear that evening, my friend and the bunnies, and then companions in survival. Sometimes, it seems, death retreats.
My friend made a painting once about her father’s sudden death. It shows an empty disheveled bed. It is titled “Gone.” I deeply recognized the moment and the feeling of utter gone-ness.
I could hardly understand it at fifty-six – perhaps I am closer now at sixty-four – that gone is not. I have just spent three years devoted to the teachings of The Orphan Wisdom school, teachings around the mandatory arts of living and dying well. There we considered the truth of what indigenous peoples know, that our dead, our ancestors, are only gone to the degree that we are willing to forget them. And that they are present only to the degree that we are willing to remember them. As in re-member. Not as nostalgia, or memorials, or momentos but as in a way of life in which we maintain a living, active relationship with our dead.
If this teaching is true, and in my deepest intuition, I believe it is, there are a lot of lonely dead. Perhaps mine speak to me through those peculiarities about myself that I don’t understand. As perhaps yours speak to you. For those that look like me, of European descent, all of our indigenous peoples spoke with their ancestors, asked their guidance, honored them, and relied on their presence in all the realms. Our people fed them and looked for signs of them in the newborns, remembered their stories and told them around the ceremonial fires. They held fast to a continuous thread of relation, bound by the obligations to remember and to feed life. Competing ways have been at war with that thread for hundreds of years, and while it is nearly so, it is not broken.
Perhaps the old Celt in me wanted the skull, while the more ancient herder tended the goats. Surely, the mother in me tended the rabbits, as maybe her great grandmothers had blessed and killed them for food. Isn’t my mother present every time I hold a dying bunny, or dream her, or see her in my mirror, or set a place for her at my table these many years after her death? I can see her large hands in my own aging hands, holding the small, sweet rabbit. She took the time to care for the bunny even with three children, a husband, a father, her nephews and niece coming in and out of the house, needing mothering. No matter how many instances in the years following she did not take the time, could not, was too despairing to, or should not have in order to save her own life, in that moment she took the care and gave the teaching. I am to take her best example, and to note her worst, both weighing in the balance of ensuring life’s continuity.
But in the world view so many of us have inherited, ‘gone’ is an aching, terrifying ‘gone,’ the losses absolute and devastating. But ‘gone’ is not only painful, it is also meaningless road to despair.
Over generations, the ceremonies that sustained our relation to our ancestors have been forcefully purged from our memory in a great project to sever life from the old ways. Europeans continued that violent quest here in North America and elsewhere. But the blood is not so easily silenced.
Our dead are always speaking to us, we are not bereft. We can develop the skill to re-member them in our gestures, our children, what and who we love and hate, our dreams, and our burdens and gifts, our weirdnesses, our fate. We can gather up the stories, find their deepest wisdoms and share them with our young, reweaving a strong thread of continuance to which they can hold fast in the high winds of our times.