She’d gone out to walk the dog that morning, shivering as her breath hung in the chill air, and found Thumper laying in the back corner of the hutch. The large brown rabbit was already cold, so she knew that it had died sometime during the night. The other rabbits were gathered together for warmth on the far side of the hutch, their little blue and red eyes blinking as their noses wriggled with discontent. They knew that Thumper was dead too.
Susan sighed and pulled the dead rabbit from the hutch. She couldn’t just throw it in the trash. Anne might be willing to accept just being told that it had died, but Andrew was already upset enough at Tony leaving for sea duty. Susan couldn’t just tell him that his favorite rabbit had disappeared. She stood there for a few minutes, listening to the rustling of the cold morning wind through the trees as she cradled the corpse in her left arm and stroked between the ears. Once long and perky and utterly adorable, they now flopped over her fingers like loose rags.
Eventually, she set the dead rabbit atop the stump beneath which the bunnies had made a burrow and, pushing through the fence, whistled for the elderly Saint Bernard to come back from her morning patrol of the property.
Above the washing machine she found a shoebox half filled with scraps of dryer lint that Anne had been saving to make fire starters for Girl Scouts. Susan stuffed the lint into an empty pickle jar and carried the box back outside. Thumper was a large rabbit, but she just managed to fit his corpse into the shoebox and set it in the mudroom before returning to the kitchen table to drink her coffee.
Anne woke first. She took the news well enough for a girl of thirteen. Tears welled up behind her Coke bottle glasses, but she snuffled them away and asked after the other rabbits.
“They’re alright, honey,” Susan said, holding her daughter’s hand across the chipped formica tabletop.
“And the cats?”
“They’re fine too. It wasn’t a predator. I think Thumper was just old. He was fully grown when we got him, remember.”
Anne nodded, her lips set in a grave line, and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
Andrew toddled out of his room a while later, completely naked, as Anne read her book and Susan was in the midst of setting a pot of black beans to soak for dinner.
“You need pants, mister,” Susan said.
Andrew grinned, but didn’t reply as he stumbled past his mother and sister, then turned into the small bathroom off the kitchen.
Anne groaned. “He’s going to make a mess.” She stuck her face back in her book, hoping to avoid the fate of cleaning the bathroom for after her little brother.
“At least he didn’t wet the bed,” Susan replied.
“Get dressed. We need to have a funeral.”
It took nearly twenty minutes for Susan to herd both of her children into warm clothing and assemble them in the mudroom. It was a cramped space, with low benches set into the walls and coat hooks hung about, but Tony had built it for the family before going out to sea so Susan would have an easier time of keeping the house warm while he was gone. Then the three of them tramped out the door and up the hill behind the house, their breath ghosting in the chill autumn air.
It was a simple funeral. Susan worked the shovel into the cold ground, still a couple weeks from fully freezing for the season, and dug out a hole deep enough for a small shrub or the even smaller shape of a rabbit in a shoebox. Anne set the improvised coffin into the hole and, prompted by his mother, little Andrew tried to scrape the dirt back in with the shovel. That effort ended quickly as the handle of the school whipped wildly through the air. Susan caught the handle before it struck her in the face, then finished filling the hole.
And that ought to have been the end of it.
The next morning, Susan took the family Saint Bernard out for its morning walk. While checking on the rabbits, who were all alive this morning, she heard the dog snorting nearby. Looking around the left side of the rabbit hutch, she saw thumper laying on the large stump at the edge of the fence.
“Where did you come from?” she exclaimed.
The rabbit stared back at her with glassy eyes.
“I’m still dead,” it seemed to say. “How would I know how I got here.”
Perplexed, Susan whistled for the dog to follow. She whimpered at first, very much wanting to remain and keep staring at the dead rabbit on the stump, but at Susan’s second call she followed. Up the hill they went, through the dead scraps of the garden, and to the place where the family had buried Thumper yesterday morning.
The hole was still filled in.
Susan wasn’t one for cursing, nor was she superstitious, but in that moment she let slip a silent obscenity and glanced around, feeling cold fingertips brush agains the back of her neck.
How did the rabbit get back on the stump?
Not wanting to upset the children by letting them see Thumper again, and spurred by curiosity, Susan walked down to the garden shed, listening to the morning birdsong more intently than usual. She now found herself unexpectedly on edge, searching the twitter and squawk of the daily chorus for a discordant note that might indicate the presence of a fox or a wolf or even another human. She heard nothing out of the usual.
Susan found the shovel where she had left it, leaning against the wall on the right side of the tool shed. Returning to the garden grave, she made quick work of the still loose soil. Turning it up, she found the shoebox resting at the bottom. Rather the worse for having been buried and then uncovered again, but still intact.
She eyed the shoebox.
It had to be empty. Right? No matter that the master of horror himself lived two hours north of her home, Maine was not actually a hotbed of horror. The box would be empty and it would turn out that the kids had simply retrieved the rabbit out of misguided grief. That had to be it.
With more trepidation than she liked, Susan used the tip of the shovel to ease the lid from the box.
The box was empty.
She heaved a sigh. Of course the box was empty, but she still felt relief discovering it to be so.
Susan bundled the dead rabbit back into the box and buried it again, adding a couple more inches to the depth for good measure. Whistling for the dog, she returned to the house and went about her day. She said nothing about the rabbit, but watched both Anne and Andrew carefully, looking for any clue that one of them had retrieved the rabbit during the night, but both acted normally.
The only deviation from the normal daily ritual came when Andrew paused at filling in one of his coloring books and announced that he missed Thumper.
As if an answer to Andrew’s wish, the next morning Susan found the dead rabbit resting on the stump again. By now it looked rather the worse for wear. Its eyes had gone dull. Its fur was matted. Some of the grave dirt was clumped up in its right ear.
This time she buried the rabbit a foot deeper and put a stone over the shoebox lid before filling in the dirt. She then confronted Andrew and Anne over breakfast, but both denied digging up Thumper.
“Why would I dig up a dead rabbit?” Anne asked
“Where is he?” Andrew asked. “Did he come back to life?”
Susan scowled and shook her head. “No. No… I think Suzy must have dug him up,” she said, trying to drop the subject before the kids became upset.
But even if the Saint Bernard was responsible, that didn’t explain how the rabbit grave had been neatly filled back in atop the re-closed shoebox coffin.
The rabbit did not come back the next morning, or the one after. A part of Susan wondered if she ought to dig the grave up one last time, just to see if the rabbit was still there.
She never did.