On summer Sundays my father solemnly mowed the lawn, that American father’s sacred duty. He would trundle out the red push-mower from the garage, where he kept his tools and a chair with a lamp, knot a handkerchief over his mouth, and yank the cord until the machine coughed to life.
While he worked my father wore old racing shorts that were very small. He was an inveterate un-finisher of anything other than mowing, that self-contained task that isolated him so completely. He would readily launch a domestic project like chair-building, never to complete a single chair, finding instead something new and more solitary to take up his time (building shelves for my toys, say) until he tired of that and it, too, languished unfinished. He was good at everything he did but, as my mother told her friend one night on the telephone, “He bores easily.”
Likely, my father dreamed that he was suited to something more glorious. He longed to be a distance runner in his youth, had even neared greatness at his Kentish public school, but now he was plodding up and down a needy middle-class lawn on white, taffy-stretched legs. When he bent to move something, a stone or one of my Barbie dolls, the outline of his testicles squeezed by the fabric fascinated me; I could not imagine what could make such a fleshy, uncomfortable shape, a bit like a woman’s breasts mashed under a heavy grocery bag she was lugging to her car. It was the one soft thing about him.
On the day I took my first life, I was newly ten. This is how I remember it, though I’ve been told it can’t be true, or isn’t, that memory is a sly animal, changeable and self-serving. The sun was high and the breathy clamor of bees sounded outside my bedroom window. My mother, some years my father’s junior and having gone back to school, was out for a study group. I was content to avoid my father and was studying a cicada shell peeled from the black walnut tree that very morning, that inhospitable tree which poisoned the soil so that nothing else could grow near it, and dropped its hard little shells everywhere, when I heard the mower’s whine cease and a sound like screaming began. I dropped the cicada. The sound was like a chorus of reeds, amplified a hundred times. I stood for a long time, not understanding that I might do anything at all, and the sound died away.
It was then that I was able to move. I raced down the stairs and fell out the back door to see my father beneath the evergreen on his hands and knees. There was the mower stalled beside him, and a plastic bucket. My father’s hand was plunging in and out of it, spilling torrents of grassy red water onto the lawn.
“Can you help me, Leia?” he called.
There was a waver in his voice I had not heard before. Not his customary impatience. Wanting to please him, I went, though I was frightened of the hulking mower that I thought had maimed him. I followed his eyes. There was a squirming clutch of wetness in a depression in the earth at the nose of the stalled mower. He said, “Put them in the bucket, please. They won’t bite. Not now.”
Lawnmowers in other yards continued their Doppler hum. Capable fathers accepted lemonade from their children. I smelled grass and gasoline and something else. My father said he was mowing the needle-riddled patch beneath the evergreen, and I’ve since imagined it happened this way: He tried to push the machine over the prickly rise, and because he was the kind of man who, when frustrated with the task at hand, would do it as quickly as he could, applying brusqueness and strength rather than technique, he used his full weight to force the mower over it, and when he did so he felt a loosening in the earth beneath his feet. The rhythm of the machine’s blades faltered, taking on a laborious note he attributed at first to black walnut shells scattered by squirrels, those constant enemies of lawn maintenance. My father withdrew the mower and squinted over the top to discover he had destroyed a rabbits’ den, some of whose infant occupants were now writhing in the ground before me, gray and red and white with leaking, onyx eyes and snagged fur. My father, not knowing what to do, had taken a pail filled with rainwater and set about dropping each ruined, crying rabbit into the water, one by one. Tears fell down his big nose and sank into his handkerchief. When they tried to swim he held the rabbits under, marveling at their smallness in his fingers, the fineness of their splintered bones, at how many there were, at how each seemed to have been nicked in a devastating way.
The final two were for me to fetch now that I had come along, and I could see that they were not just gouged but partially crushed, and I was frightened of them, their trembling, their keening, their distorted snouts, torn flesh and yellow fat spilling like dirty laundry.
“I need you to, Leia. I can’t reach. And they’re suffering,” he said, and his voice broke and he hung his big, grey head over the bloody bucket and jerked his body. When I saw him I was not frightened of the rabbits anymore, but of him, a man I didn’t know, and of the fur and cut grass caught in the hairs of his forearms.
I gathered the bodies as one. I remember the grit on them, the stink of their blood and feces, the smells a soldier must come to know so well in one of those great wars my father talked about, the smear that immediately becomes tacky on the skin, and their terror moved through my arm so that I put them over the bucket and then quickly, to impress my father with my fearlessness, into the water, where his hands waited. He took over then, and he held all the rabbits together under the cloudy, red water. His shoulders heaved. I wiped my hands many times on my jeans. I waited. Bubbles broke the water’s surface.
At last, my father sat back in a crackle of needles and grass and I knew I could go.
Later I waited in the kitchen, afraid to make a sound in case I disturbed the new vision, fragile as a reflection on the surface of a lake, of my father. He banged through the screen door, wiping his reddened eyes, having washed himself with the green garden hose attached to the garage. His glasses were speckled with pink droplets of water.
“Sweet little things,” he said. He sounded disappointed, tired. I waited for him to notice that I had not cried at all. Then he straightened his long spine and shook his head and poured us each a glass of water, and I went back to my room with its unfinished shelves, and in a little while, I heard the mower start.