Jessica's hair was not completely white, though it did look that way under a reading lamp or next to white walls. That night it looked more golden, like the flaxen hair that grew up north, in snowy countries. She wore a white cardigan that had a hole in one of its elbows and a yellowy stain along the hem in the back, under which was a white blouse, much like the one she had worn the other day in the rain, and a thick tweed skirt that reached past her knees, checked in tiny white and black squares so that it looked gray at first. I noticed when she sat down with us on the floor while we gathered ourselves and decided what we would all do together that the waist of it was pinned, quite awkwardly, in the back, as if she had tugged and dug into herself for several minutes before getting the sharp point to catch and hold.

We decided to draw. Corine turned onto hands and knees and pulled from the bottom shelf three partially used drawing pads. She handed Jessica the one with the most clean pages. I got the bucket of pens and centered it between us. One at a time we dipped our hands in and drew our colors. Soon we were bent over the white paper, our eyes lowered in devotional concentration, our breaths matching each others', inside out, inside out.

"I brought a present for you," Jessica announced so suddenly my pen skipped across the page. She reached behind her and under Corine's bed. There was the strange white bundle she had carried into the house earlier tucked under her arm.

She unwrapped it carefully. It was made of cloth, a blouse or a dress of some kind, with a piece of string attached to it somehow, and some fur. White fur.

Finally, Jessica had it spread out in the middle of us. "It's a cape," she said slowly, as if the words sounded funny spoken aloud. "It's a cape for your rabbit."

Corine and I smiled in unison and thanked her. It was impressive, the way it really did look like a cape a rabbit would wear, all white with white fur lining along the neck and the hem, a white shoelace threaded through to be tied under the chin in a small bow.

"I sewed it last night when it was raining. I thought your rabbit could wear it so she wouldn't get too cold and wet." She hadn't looked up yet. Her eyes remained lowered upon the form on the blue rug, smoothed out in a shell shape, like the skirt of a tiny woman.

The rabbit was at that moment out in the cage, a stilted hut with too separate rooms and a peeked roof just like the a-frames in the area. She sat pressed up against the grill of the walls, her fur bursting through, panting to herself in the shade.

"Thanks," Corine said petting the lining admiringly. "That's so nice . . . I'm sure she'll like it."

"Let's go put it on her," I said, enjoying the way Jessica's eyes lit up and her chin lifted glowingly. She sat behind her white creation for a moment like an old woman, proud of her final creation.

Outside, the twilight leaked through the needles and bay leaves patterning the sky in shades of lavender and blue-black. The rabbit's hut was still like an unoccupied house and it felt like we were sneaking up on it, cowboy robbers in a TV Western. Jessica carried the cape dutifully, her head and shoulders serious, making it seem impossible to break the silence.

The three of us stopped beside the cage and peeked in. The rabbit was balled up in the corner of its newspaper bed. Water sat glassy and thick in a bowl.

"Hello there," Jessica greeting the animal with her finger. "We've brought you something warm to wear tonight." The rabbit's head froze, only the nose twitched secretly, the white body pulsing against the cage. The black eyes looked tearful but apathetic, their depths fathomless. Corine unlatched the door and reached her hand in.

She looked boneless in Corine's small hands, her ears drooped back in surrender, though all the while her nose began to shake more quickly and her fur shivered tall and straight on her back, more alive than her soft face. Corine nuzzled her under her chin and then turned toward Jessica, who was waiting with our present.

The cape slipped easily over the neck encasing the body in its own color but different texture. The stains I had noticed earlier were invisible in the dark and so the form seemed to glow evenly white. I stepped forward to tighten the knot at the neck.

"It fits perfectly," Corine complimented. I couldn't make out Jessica's face in the dimness but I could sense the triumph in the way she held her head at an angle to inspect her work. Corine extended the rabbit out to her to hold.
I filled the troph with the food I had brought and tested the water to be sure it felt clean. The surface arced in faint reflection. I straightened to find Corine standing still looking interestedly at Jessica and the rabbit, whose head she had up against her mouth, the ear resting against her cheek. She was whispering something into it.

"I think she likes it," I said, interrupting. "She isn't trying to take it off. Maybe she knows it's going to rain."
The rabbit shook herself when she was released back into the cage, the cape like a new extension of herself, a newborn shell. We watched her skip quietly to the food and dip her head in, turning her back to us.

Piled under extra blankets on the floor that night, we listened to the rain run down the windows and soak the trees. It tapped the roof and slid along the gutters, splattering noisily to the ground. The thought of wood soaking, of the cool wind shuffling the slick leaves in the night, drifted just above our heads as we listened in silence. Below, where the stilts of the house went underground and the land began its steady slope down into the valley, the rabbit huddled calmly in its hut, amid tall trees, a solitary clump the color of snow, offered up at their feet.

Jessica's mother was at the door two weeks later. It was a Saturday morning and the cartoons were on the TV, Gabe huddled in the afghan on the couch. Corine and I had been half watching, half paying attention to other things like the noises in the kitchen, our drawing pads filled with rabbits, and the coppery coins of sunlight beading across the deck. The sun was coming up in lace.

We answered the door, and there she was, surprisingly a woman. We had never seen Jessica's mother in the daylight before. In fact, we had never seen her face straight on. In the house, she was always mostly sound, bumping from her study to the kitchen and sometimes to her bedroom, creaking in her chair like an old rocking ship. We would catch glimpses of her-a bundle of cardigan, baggy skirt, wool socks, ragged, gray-blond hair. Alone on our walks home we would picture the face that might peek through it all, haglike, crooked nose, wrinkled, dried-up eyes. Somehow the thought of it matched the clouded, quiet day, the late afternoon gloom just before rain.

But here she was in the quickening sunshine, facing us full on. She was wrapped in what looked like a long sweater with large leather buttons bulging unclasped down the center. She wore her sneakers untied, the thick wool socks lumped around her ankles. All the same blurry, sagging material, the same sunken mass that we had caught sneaking about the house.

All except for the face.

Jessica's mother was stunning. She bent over Corine and me goddesslike, peering out of a dream. Her eyes were large and lush blue, rimmed in white lashes and delicate wrinkles. She looked sketched into the sweatery clothes she wore, a perfectionist's portrait of his beloved daughter traced in thin, unfolding lines. Corine and I stood towered over, unworded.

Because we were so quiet no one else came to the door. Dad had the blender going and Mom was probably busily pulling breakfast out of the refrigerator. After a few moments of standing there in the shock of each other, Jessica's mother finally spoke, her voice a whisper. "My, you are twins." She seemed just as stunned by us as we were by her, her look locked, as if jolted awake.

"Hi," Corine braved a greeting. "Is Jessica with you?" She didn't dare peek behind the mother; we didn't dare move at all.

The mother was looking only at Corine now, her pool-blue eyes beginning to swim over her, deciding where to dive in.

"You must be Corine."

We both nodded.

"Jessica and you were closer, weren't you?" With this she glanced over at me, apologetic.

"I don't know . . . me and Grace . . ."

"I mean she told you more things didn't she, things she didn't tell your sister." I noticed her hands tightening their hold on her sweater, her white neck quivering just above the collar bone. I saw Corine's eyes begin to water, and I thought she would either run from this woman or bury herself in those long mothery arms.

Jessica's mother then turned to me. She was looking harder now, warming to our twinness. She seemed to know us well, as if we had chatted with her every time we'd been to her house instead of hiding behind her daughter's back.
"Jessica has run away," she said flatly, aiming her words at my eyes. "She was not in her room this morning and I can tell she is not here," she was roaming now up and down the two us with her twin lakes of shark-infested blue, deep-dive blue. A breeze picked her hair up and lifted it as if she were about to take flight.

My heart was pounding and I wanting to find a way to call Mom without Jessica's mother hearing, a whale sound picked up only by submarine sonar. Corine, miraculously seemed much less daunted and much more concerned.

"Where do you think she went?"

I immediately thought underneath the house, the treehouse at the Petroff's, the park down the hill. Corine had run away to the treehouse once. It had felt like days until Gabe finally went and convinced her to come back home an hour later.

"I think she's walked downtown and gotten on a bus. I found a number for the bus schedule written on the kitchen counter this morning."

Downtown? A bus? Jessica was beginning to feel hundreds of miles away, further and further away as the seconds ticked by and the wind kept picking up and the sun brightened with every breath.

"She never said anything to me. I wish I could help, but she never said anything, not to me," Corine steadily admitted. For a moment I thought the mother would respond, maybe even smile. Her eyes were starting to melt and flood into her face, and I saw her teeth come out and bite her pale pink lip, her face stretching, or was it grimacing? into something next.

Then she looked up over our heads, a tear loosening.

"Oh, hi Jennifer," came a soft, helping voice from behind us. "What's happened? . . . Oh, why don't you come in . . ."
Mom stayed with Jessica's mother at the top of the stairs by the front door, and Corine and I turned and ran to find Gabe, who was now out of his blankets, standing in his pajama shorts and shirt out on the deck. His long skinny body bent over the the railing. We slid out after him into the warming air. Coming up behind him we stopped when we saw what he was looking at, next to the base of the bay tree, down below the house. The rabbit cage, wide open, nothing but weathered wood, newspaper, and a silent bowl of black water.



 


Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | November 2000 | Volume 8

 

 

 

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