It had already been a bad day when I found the bunnies. There were six of them, slumped over each other, breathing shallow like birds. They say if one finds a nest to leave it alone because scaring away the mother amounts to nothing more than bunny orphans. But I checked back later that evening, and she hadn’t nursed them. Their skin hung loose and wrinkled around their haunches, and my guess is that they’d not last the night in such a wizened state. I scooped them up in a box and put blankets all around them and used an eye dropper to dribble little bits of milk into their little mouths. I massaged their Buddha bellies so their intestines would remember to flush out the poop. But they didn’t move much. Didn’t squirm and squiggle for better blanket real estate.
Daddy? My little girl peeks into the laundry room where I’ve been keeping them.
I wave her away. “They’re not well enough yet.” I want them to be healthy when she first sees them. They must wiggle through her fingers and tickle her hand.
She pouts, hoping that will weaken my resolve, but I shake my head again. My wife shouts from the other room that it’s time for her to put on pajamas. She leaves as I start to set up a heat lamp over the box. I forget to kiss her goodnight.
I wake up every few hours to check on the bunnies throughout the night. At 4 a.m. I discover that one has died. The brothers and sisters don’t seem to notice and are snuggled close to it nonetheless. When I lift the tiny body from their midst, they scurry together to get warm again. I wrap it up in a plastic bag and go outside put it in the trash bin. I keep the porch lights off and pray that no neighbors see me.
The next morning is all grogginess and a profound need for coffee. I wonder if I should move a small cot into the room so I can monitor the babies more frequently. I retreat to give them all their morning feedings before work. I hear my girl chattering at breakfast and hope she will come into the room and ask about the bunnies. I hope she sees me in the act of feeding them, what good care I use. She doesn’t know how many there were—she doesn’t have to know one died. But by the time I am done my wife has taken her to school.
I leave a note on the refrigerator asking my wife to check on the bunnies while I’m at work. When I come home, another two have died. My daughter knocks on the door, but I tell her the bunnies are sleeping. “You can help me feed them in the morning, promise.” I pull out two more bodies, wrap them up, and sneak them into the trash while my girl is getting ready for bed. I am going to watch over them tonight so they will be ready to hold tomorrow. The remaining three look small, and so I give them a good feeding, making sure the dropper is empty of all milk after each round. When I look up, it’s already ten and everyone is in bed. I sleep in the living room, and get up at twelve and then again at two. The bunnies sleep under the heat lamp, their bellies still full. The last few sleepless nights catch up with me, and the next time I wake it’s dawn. I go in to find all three bodies cold. When I asked the vet later what I could have done differently, he said babies can aspirate when they get too much milk.
I try to picture my daughter’s expectant face when she bursts out of her bedroom, begging to feed the bunnies. I can’t bear it, and leave for work early. When I return much later that night, everyone is already asleep. I throw the box away.
About the author:
Nancy Hightower’s work has appeared in storySouth, Word Riot, Gargoyle, Red Fez, Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number Magazine and Big Muddy, and is forthcoming in A cappella Zoo. Her short story collection “Kinds of Leaving,” was shortlisted for the Flann O’Brien Award for Innovative Fiction, and Port Yonder press will publish her collection of poetry, The Acolyte. She currently reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post.