At the bottom of his grandparents’ narrow yard, Mateo leans against the shed and watches his grandfather wind rope around the hind leg of the rabbit he has just killed. His hands work fast and soon only a few hairs peek out, scattered brown and black flecks against the white rope. Mateo’s grandfather waves him closer to his chair. “Like this, Mateo. See?” He knots the rope once, twice. The rabbit’s leg flaps as if no longer attached to its body. Mateo inches closer and doesn’t let himself look away. Up on the patio, his father sits before the plates of crackers and cheese and olives Mateo’s grandmother has laid out for their visit. Mateo can sense him watching from across the yard.
Mateo likes to be called Matt now, doesn’t want to be known by the name he shares with his father. This is the name he tells his friends to call him, the name he gave his teachers at PS 197 on the first day of school. His mother calls him by his shortened name, but only when his father isn’t home. Sometimes she calls him Matty and he pretends he doesn’t like it.
Mateo likes the way his full name sounds in his grandfather’s thick Italian accent, however. His grandfather says his name like he is a man, not an eight-year-old missing teeth. Mateo. From his mouth, the name sounds strong.
His grandfather finds the free end of the rope and holds it out. Mateo takes it carefully and wraps it around his hand until the line becomes taut with the weight of the animal that slides off his grandfather’s lap. Mateo jumps back as the rabbit swings toward his bare leg, and then tries to act as if he hasn’t.
If his grandfather notices, he says nothing. He pushes himself out of his wooden chair, grunting as if he’s hurt. “Old bones,” he says once he’s on his feet. Old bones, Mateo knows, are why his grandfather’s shoulders are so hunched, why he can’t uncurl all the way. Standing up straight, his grandfather would be taller than him; now, they are almost the same height.
Mateo will be taller than his father one day. This is what his father told him after work the other week when he pulled Mateo onto his lap. Mateo didn’t dare move or breathe as his father wrapped his thumb and forefinger around Mateo’s arm. The lines in his fingers were black like reverse fingerprints and his skin smelled like sweat and oil and shaving cream.
“Look at these muscles,” his father said. “Soon you’ll be too heavy to hold.” He squeezed Mateo’s flesh in a way that made his arm feel weak and skinny, as if he had no muscles at all. Later, in the bathroom’s full length mirror, Mateo tried to imagine himself older, wearing a dark mustache like his father, so tall his father would have to tilt his head back to make their eyes meet.
Now, Mateo fixes his eyes on his grandfather as he dusts threads and fur from his pants. He doesn’t want to look down at the rabbit twirling slowly between his knees as the rope untwists. The animal feels heavy to Mateo, much heavier than when it was a living, flinching thing nosing his armpit as he carried it over to his grandfather and laid it on his lap.
His grandfather puts his hand on Mateo’s shoulder. “You okay?” His eyes are two slits under puckered folds, and Mateo is almost surprised to see that they are still the same color blue they’ve always been. That they are still all kindness.
Mateo nods and his grandfather smiles. “Come,” he says and walks behind the shed. Mateo follows, the limp rabbit swaying side to side as he walks.
The day is the first one in weeks that feels more like fall than summer. The week before, their small Bronx apartment was so hot Mateo had stripped down to his underwear and lay on the floor under the open window while his father was at work. He knew what would happen if his father came home and caught him so naked, so lazy. His mother, sweating through her sleeveless blouse, laid cold washcloths on his bare chest. She told him to be ready to run into his room and change if he heard his father’s key in the door.
But the heat had helped his mother convince his father to take the trip out to Staten Island to visit her parents. “The ferry ride,” he heard her say from their bedroom. “Think of the breeze on the ferry ride.”
Mateo can’t see his father now from behind the shed, but he knows he is sitting on the lawn chair with his lips in a straight line while his mother fusses over him and fills his glass and plate. Mateo had been thankful when his grandfather announced it was time to visit the rabbit cages. For the first time, he was aware of the way his mother’s eyes darted toward his father each time she spoke to her parents, the way she quieted her laugh and kneaded her hands and kept her voice soft. Even Mateo felt something inside him pulling back, something trimming his smile when his grandfather tugged on his ears and shouted, “My boy!” when they arrived. He didn’t remember ever feeling this way during past visits. Usually, he just felt happy to sit in this long yard that felt so far outside the city even though it wasn’t. A yard where no one spoke sharply. During these visits, at least, his father becomes a quiet man.
Behind the shed is a mess of rusted tomato cages, old tools, and unopened bags of manure. It is the only part of his grandparent’s yard that isn’t neat and orderly, and Mateo wonders if this is why his grandmother said, “Joseph, you leave that boy with us while you do your work,” before yelling after him in Italian as they headed down past the small vegetable garden towards the rabbit cages. His grandfather clears a path for them, then takes the rabbit and ties the free end of the rope around a rusted hook. He instructs Mateo to move the empty plastic spackle bucket under the rabbit, its two soft ears now hanging away from its body. As Mateo positions the bucket, he hears his grandfather’s knife open with a click.
The blood pours over his grandfather’s hands as he saws the rabbit’s head from its body. Something sour burns the back of Mateo’s throat and fills his mouth. He steadies himself against the wooden shed and swallows it down. As his grandfather removes the forefeet and tail and pulls the skin over the body, Mateo presses his lips together until they hurt. It occurs to him that the wrong man is doing this job.
As they wait for the animal to drip clean, they tend to the other rabbits that his grandfather keeps in three hutches built out of wood and chicken wire. Mateo has always loved this part of the visit, loved watching the way his grandfather calls each rabbit by name. Mateo studies him now as he empties the water bowls and refills them from the watering can, watches for any change but finds none. Like always, his grandfather strokes the fur above the rabbits’ noses and feeds them hay from his hands. Mateo wonders how they can trust him like this, how they possibly can’t know. When they sniff his own fingers, Mateo says, “Hey there, hey there,” and tries to breathe out the tightness in the back of his throat.
Mateo helps rake out the soiled hay from the rabbits’ cages and replace it with fresh beds from the bale his grandfather keeps wrapped in plastic behind the shed. The hay smells sweet and earthy, and Mateo likes the way it scents his hands. When the cages are clean, Mateo follows his grandfather back to the body, now just a piece of flesh and fur hanging from a rope. His stomach lurches when his grandfather slides the knife into the rabbit’s belly, but he no longer feels as if he will be ill. His grandfather turns to him, and Mateo pulls in his lips and smiles. He doesn’t want to open his mouth so close to the rabbit, afraid, somehow that he will taste it raw.
“Here,” his grandfather says, and turns the knife so that the handle is facing Mateo. “Time to help.”
Mateo wraps his fingers around the wooden handle. Half of him wants to tell his grandfather he doesn’t want to help anymore; the other half wants to grip the knife so tightly his palm blisters and hardens from his work. His grandfather places his hand over Mateo’s hand, and together they slice through the pink flesh. Midway through, his grandfather backs away and says, “Finish.”
Mateo does, cutting through the meat until he hits bone. Next, his grandfather splits the rabbit open at the seam and shows Mateo how to remove the brown, coiling insides with his fingers. The intestines feel thick and sticky in his hands; he pulls them carefully from the rabbit’s body. Once they finish hollowing the rabbit, Mateo can’t help feeling something like pride when his grandfather mutters words that Mateo can’t quite understand, but knows mean that he has done a good job.
Later, at the kitchen sink after they have washed the carcass in the outside tub, Mateo’s grandfather rubs soap into their hands and arms. His grandmother bustles around them, making the kitchen smell like onions and cooking rabbit. At the stove, Mateo’s mother tries to take the spoon from his grandmother, but she shoos her towards the kitchen chair. “You look tired, Cathy. Sit a while.”
Instead, his mother heads toward the living room where his father is reading the paper. Mateo’s grandmother shakes her head and makes two sharp sounds with her tongue. From the living room, Mateo hears murmurs, and then his mother’s voice. “Right now? But we’re making dinner for you.”
Over at the stove, a lid slips from his grandmother’s hands and clanks itself still on the linoleum floor. Mateo flinches but doesn’t move from the sink, insisting his hands aren’t quite clean, though when his mother returns to the kitchen with her purse over her shoulder, he knows he will have to leave. Her dark eyes are watery, and she looks at her own mother, and then looks away. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t realize how late it was. Mateo’s right. We should be going.”
Behind her, Mateo’s father fingers the change in his pocket. “She forgets that one of us has to get up early tomorrow for work,” he says. “Dry your hands, Mateo. Say goodbye.”
Mateo does what he’s told.
The sky is still blue on the ferry ride home, but the moon is out, pale and thin like a flake of dead skin. Mateo grips the railing and tries to find the dot of moon in the river. Behind him, his father paces the deck, and his mother sits on the metal bench, thumbing her purse clasp; through the wind Mateo can hear it click open and closed, open and closed. They stayed too long. He does not want to think about reaching home. Instead, Mateo thinks about the rabbit, and by the time the ferry nears Manhattan, he finds himself replaying a single scene: He’s the one who sits on the wooden chair while his father watches with his back against the shed. He’s the one who stretches the twitching rabbit out across his lap in the warm sunshine, strokes his hand down the animal’s back, and then, without warning, grips its hind legs and breaks its neck with a snap.