Morning at Sandhill has its own choreography. Open the back door. Watch Owen perform yoga stretches as he surveilles the backyard. Wait for him to turn his face upward in a non-verbal request for a scruff or two under his chin. Speak the word “okay” in a sufficiently serious tone of voice that he understands it is time to move beyond the threshold and into the day.
Not every morning unrolls in such an orderly manner. Some mornings when I open the back door, Owen’s buddy from next door, Smokey, is waiting to stuff his long black German shepherd nose into the crack, always believing that he will be invited in. On those mornings, yoga stretches and neck scruffs are forgotten and Owen rushes through the door without encouragement.
Some mornings, when the weather is cold or wet, Owen does not even rise from his bed, but, instead, curls into a tighter ball, willing himself into invisibility and exhaling deeply as I close the laundry room door and leave him alone.
This morning was not like any of those. This morning Owen moved toward the open door, not the least bit lethargic or yoga-like, paying me no attention at all. His nose twitched in the first sniff of morning air and his dark eyes stopped their scanning on a spot at the edge of the yard. A big brown rabbit sat under the oak tree nibbling at the bird seed that had been knocked out of the feeder.
I didn't dare move. I knew that the slightest motion would send the rabbit scurrying and the scurrying would send Owen dashing off the stoop, chasing the poor rabbit into the undergrowth. Quiet and still, my eyes moved back and forth between the rabbit and Owen.
Eventually the rabbit stealthily moved away from the shade of the tree and toward the edge of the brush. Owen remained alert and immovable. Deciding to believe that he sensed, but did not actually see the rabbit, I urged him outside and closed the door. Whether a chase ensued, I cannot say.
The day moved on and I could not stop thinking about the rabbit. Dark brown, bigger than any I have seen around here lately. I imagined his warren, his mate, perhaps some kits. I decided he must have survived several seasons — avoided the snakes as a baby, the raccoons as an adolescent, the coyotes and foxes as an adult — to get to be the mature rabbit at the edge of my yard.
The thing is, I decided as I walked down the road beneath the warming sun, rabbits are not all that different from humans. You don’t get to be grown, to be a mature human being, without surviving a few things. Without getting a few scars. Without having run from and eluded some enemies.
My father is 86 years old. I have watched him longer than I have watched anyone. I have watched him stand in a dusty corn field, eyes and arms lifted in supplication for rain. I have watched him gently wipe the face of my dying mother, his bride of 66 years. I have watched him, heard him eulogize his own parents and more than a handful of friends. I have watched him, in the way of all creatures, scar and bruise and survive.
A day later, a day after I met the rabbit, I saw Owen stretched out in the sun chewing on a bone. It was dry and white and old. Too dry and too white and too old to belong to the rabbit. Still, it was evidence of the life of something — an opossum, maybe, or an armadillo — and it reminded me that, while life of any length involves scarring and bruising, it also, eventually, involves ending.
I do not want to consider this. I would rather stand quietly at my door and watch rabbits.