Sabbath came to my house for dinner that night, like she did most nights of the week. She was the last of nine, and her mother spent most of her time in bed. My mother spent most of her time in the kitchen, and she liked to feed Sabbath because Sabbath would eat anything you gave her, and then ask for more. We had mashed potatoes, sweetmeat squash, navy beans, and brown bread. Sabbath spread butter over her whole plate and caught my mother smiling at her when she looked up.
You like that much butter? she asked.
Sabbath looked down at her food, all of it covered in a layer of yellow too thick to melt into sweetness. I guess so, she said.
I spread a little butter thin on my bread.
We have some jam, too, if you girls want, my mother said. I haven’t opened a jar yet. I made a lot of jam last summer. Raspberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, blackberry. You girls want some jam for your bread?
Sabbath shook her head and went on chewing. I filled my mouth with squash and looked at the window above my mother’s head, at the streaked glass that she looked out through when she cooked. When I looked at Sabbath again she was clutching her stomach, her head bent over her plate and her hair falling in front of it and hiding her from my mother and me.
When my mother said, Sabbath, are you all right, honey? Sabbath looked up and tried to smile at her, and then doubled over and began to cry.
Oh God, oh God, oh God, she said. I’m sorry, Mrs. Samish. I’m so sorry. Can I please use your bathroom?
I think we’d better get you to a doctor, my mother said.
No, no, no, no, no! She looked up and I could see that she had started crying, and for a second I believed it too, and thought, how is this happening here in our house, before I looked down and saw my fingers still rustish from the doing.
My mother stood up and moved toward Sabbath. Really, she said, I think—
—I can’t see a doctor! I’m afraid of doctors! My sister…. She stopped and looked down, and then I knew it would be enough, because Sabbath’s sister had gone missing three years ago and even though no one knew where she had gone or if she was alive or if her going missing had anything to do with doctors, it was enough. It was almost always enough.
You’re sick, my mother said, taking her in: the pale forehead, sweat already bright, face clenched as a fist. And Sabbath, realizing she was doing too good a job, let herself be in just a little less pain.
It’s just female troubles, she said.
Well, I’m a female, my mother said, and then took her by the arm and led her to the upstairs bathroom. I followed behind.
When I got in Sabbath was lying in the bathtub, pulling her pants down and wincing and tightening her chin. My mother’s hands were moving around in front of her, and she was saying, Do you need a glass of water? Do you need some tea? Some hot tea? Do you need a paper towel? Do you need me to take your temperature? Do you need me to call your mother, Sabbath? Your mother—is that what you need? and Sabbath looked up and said—weakly, goodly, like a cowboy’s sweetheart wounded in a movie—I need Finn.
If I see any blood, she said, we’re calling the doctor.
I stepped in front of her and knelt on the floor. Sabbath smiled. That’s good, she said, too quiet for my mother to hear. That’s good. And then she made her face scared again and said, Tell me to push.
Push, I said.
Tell me again.
Tell me I have to.
Push! I said. You have to push!
You have to!
She screamed and then let her scream turned into a whimper and then when the whimper died she said to me, in a small steady voice, Now reach up and get them.
Her jeans and her underpants where already pushed down. I closed my eyes and reached up into her and waited for my mother to ask what I was doing, but she didn’t say anything. My fingers were pressed together by the narrowness so I could only get ahold of the smallest things, but this was what they were, and I pushed in deeper and felt something not her, soft and furred and slimed with girl, and I pulled.
I held it out to Sabbath and she took it from me and held it in her arms though it would have fit just as easily in the palm of her hand. My mother came over and stood above us. My god, she said. Is that…?
Its ears were flattened against its head, its eyes closed, its fur slick and the white of its tail pinkened with blood. In the cold air of the upstairs a little steam came off it, but it didn’t move. My mother reached out and touched it with the tips of her fingers, and then pulled her hand away.
Mrs. Samish, Sabbath said, you’d better step back. I think I feel another one coming.
Sabbath gave birth to three rabbits that night, all of them dead when they came out. They had been dead when we put them in her, but my mother didn’t know that, and if she thought for a second that Sabbath was making it up, she didn’t say anything. After she had cleaned Sabbath up and asked her if she wanted to see her mother and again watched Sabbath pretend to cry, she told her to sleep in the big bedroom that night, and to let her know if she needed anything, anything at all. So Sabbath slept in my mother’s bed and my mother slept with me. I got into bed with Sabbath just before morning, and when I woke up again she was sitting beside me, a brush in one hand and a mirror in the other, the ones my mother kept on her bedside table.
Well? she said, looking not at me but at the mirror.
Do I look like a mother?
You look smart.
I don’t want to look smart, she said, and went back to brushing. I want to look dumb and scared. That’s the only way to do it.
I pulled the covers back up over my face and turned away from her. Cry more, then.
Bring me my babies and I will.
She might have thrown them out.
How do you know?
I just know. She didn’t.
I sat up and looked at her, her red cheeks and her white lips, the challenge of her prettiness. But she wouldn’t look back at me, and so I went downstairs and found my mother sitting on the front steps and watching the dogs in the street. I sat down next to her.
Sabbath is a very brave girl, isn’t she? my mother said, like it was the new version of Good morning.
Yeah, I said.
Would she like some tea?
She wants to see her babies.
My mother turned to look at me. Some of her hair had come loose and was lying against her cheek, reaching into her mouth, but hadn’t got there yet. What? she asked.
Did you throw them out?
No, honey, but…. I don’t think she should see them.
She says she wants to.
My eyes started stinging, and I felt something like crying coming on, and wondered if I had done it to myself or it had just come accidentally. I didn’t know which one I wanted it to be. I wondered if Sabbath felt this way. My mother put her hand on my shoulder.
Give them to her, I said. She wants to see her babies. Jesus Christ, Mom. Let her see her babies.
She looked out at the street for a little longer, and then stood up abruptly and walked into the kitchen, opened the freezer and pulled out a plastic bag. It was clouded a little by the cold, but I could see three brown bodies lined up at the bottom. There was a streak of browny-gold at the top, dried blood mixed with the stuff that had coated them when they came out. The smell of it was still a little on my hands. I had slept lying on top of them.
Oh, said my mother.
I don’t know. I thought they might change overnight.
I took the bag up to the bedroom, and was closing the door behind me when Sabbath said, Leave it open.
She was propped up on a pile of pillows, but her eyes were closed. Let me see them, she said, and I lay the bag down on her lap and backed away, looked back and saw my mother standing in the hallway, watching.
Sabbath opened the bag, took them out, and kissed them one by one. Then she pushed the covers back and got out of bed, feet bare and lips bright, and went out the door and down the stairs. My mother and I followed. We followed her out the front door and onto October Street, and then down to Main, where we were joined by others. We followed her over the railroad tracks and down to the river, where she knelt on the dirty gray sand and put the babies in the water, where the current was weak, so the people who had followed her could see what she had done.
There were about a thousand people living in Rose, and one by one they all made their way through my mother’s bedroom. Sabbath set herself up there, and my mother stayed downstairs where she made fresh coffee and tea all day and baked batches of lemon squares to give to people who came downstairs looking shaken. It wasn’t long before Sabbath suggested, innocent as a bluebell, that she start charging for entry and refreshments—I know you’re just being neighborly, Mrs. Samish, but I’m so tired after visiting with them all, so tired—and so my mother cut a slit in a shoebox, found an old grease pencil, and wrote Anything Helps on the lid.
Anything helps who? I asked. She had just taken another tray of lemon squares out of the oven and it was my job to dust them.
Sabbath, of course.
Anything she wants help with. Anything at all.
People gave quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies so long from the mint they had turned mint-green again. They slipped in a few cents on the way in and again on the way out. They started coming at six o’clock in the morning and didn’t all leave until after midnight. After my mother sent me to bed each night I lay awake listening to the hard rain of coins, to the sound of all the money in town slowly making its way through our house.
Sabbath never went downstairs, but I knew she heard the money. She heard it as she sat quietly in bed and let people touch her cheeks, her belly, run their hands through her hair and tell her about the worst things they had done. They got five minutes each, ten if my mother saw the green of paper money go into the box, and they used them as well as they could. My mother had dug a silver-plated serving tray out of the sideboard, washed the rabbits in the sink, laid them out on it, and put the tray at the foot of the bed, like she was serving breakfast. When she forced Sabbath to rest I went upstairs to give her a glass of milk, and listened to her stories about the people who had come through that day, the ones who went to the rabbits first and the ones who went to her. She said you could tell a lot about people that way.
Hank Jespersson went straight to me, she said, proudly. Hank Jespersson was the chief of police.
He probably knows it’s fake, I said.
She kept talking like she hadn’t heard me. Didn’t even look at the babies, she said. He asked me if I needed police protection. If I felt I was in danger.
He think you’re some kind of movie star?
Miss Day went for the babies, she continued. And Liquor Store Lyle. He picked one up and I thought for a second that he was going to walk out with it. But he just held it for a while, put it down again and left.
I looked at the tray of rabbits. A few flies had come to rest on their noses and eyes, not eating or laying as far as I could tell, just getting a good, close look. The gossip must have gotten to them as well. But after three days the rabbits’ bodies had grown stiff, their bellies swollen with bloat, and you could smell their stink if you got close. It wouldn’t be long before Sabbath started stinking along with them.
I wondered if she had thought of this, and as soon as I wondered it knew that she had. She had told me about her idea like it was a one-time thing, a goof on all the grownups in town who’d confused her with her sisters, or slapped her for stealing an orange when all she’d had to eat for two weeks was bread and lard. It would be fun, she said. It would be funny. But now there was money involved, and nothing was allowed to be funny anymore. I sat at the foot of the bed while she brushed her hair, and waited for my next instructions.
The bunny lady lived clear up the top of Sparrowrise, where the houses grew scarce and trees grew tall and you could look down over the low, slack-bellied buildings in town and across the river as far as Washington. By the time you got to the bunny lady’s house, though, you couldn’t see much of anything: the forest was thick around her and she seemed to like it that way. Her husband, who had been a door-to-door salesman before he left town, had built their house from a kit he hadn’t had any luck selling, and looking at the place now you could see why. His sales route was up and down Highway 30, to Clatskanie and Columbia City and Deer Island and Scappoose, places the hot shine of sun and money never quite reached, and the kits he was selling were made for Southern California, or at least a salesman’s idea of them. They were pretty little bungalows painted lemon drop yellow or S&H Stamp green, with flimsy walls and wide, cheerful windows made to let in the sun.
He hadn’t poured a foundation, just set the house down in the dirt, and though the bunny lady had set up hutches all along her porch—she sold rabbits for pets or meat and, some said, as bait animals for the dogfighting Slaughter boys—there were just as many of them living under the house, a little thinner and a little less stupid but no less liable to breed. I thought I would get some down there.
I was wearing an old pair of jeans and Sabbath’s cowgirl jacket, the fringed one she would never let me borrow, and as I got down on my belly I was sure to rub my elbows in the dirt. I crawled forward and reached my arm under the house as far as it would go, my fingers brushing against the shifting muscle of a back leg, and then grasping at nothing. I took a last breath of the outside air and then slid my head and shoulders under the house. I closed my eyes tight and then opened them again, hoping I had tricked my body into thinking this little light was now enough. I saw here and there the dull shining of a tooth or a claw, and a few inches from me a kindle of kits—four of them—and the warm, fat body of a doe beside them. I reached my fingers into the doe’s stiff fur and she stiffened, trembled, and darted away. Then I scooped up the kits and slipped them into Sabbath’s coat.
When I pulled myself out the bunny lady was standing over me. Hungry again? she asked.
I can get you some fatter than those, she said. She was drawing one finger over the grimy siding. Her husband had chosen a model the magenta of a Russian Easter egg, and though most of it had faded to the color of carbon paper there were still streaks of something darker beneath the dirt. She was at least fifty, her hair gone colorless and her body thin, but her eyes were frightening and watchful, younger than the rest of her, and made up for the slowness of her speech. When they were on me I felt a lot like I did sometimes with Sabbath.
My friend’s only hungry for these ones, I said. She’s pregnant. You know what that’s like.
Do I? She turned to look at me. Everyone thinks rabbits are harmless, she said. But they eat their young. Often. Does that surprise you?
They do it if they worry something else will get them first. If there’s a lot of loud noise, strange smells. Teenagers shouting. Planes flying overhead. But sometimes they do it in dead quiet. Just for the hell of it. Does that surprise you?
It’s not normal behavior.
I guess it is for a rabbit.
Even people don’t eat their young.
One of the kits was pressing into me, its hot little eyeless face wet as snot against my palm. I closed my hand and snapped its neck, and smiled at the bunny lady. Maybe they do, I said, and we just don’t know about it yet.
When I put the kits in Sabbath’s hands she snapped the necks of the other three with the same flick of the wrist she used to draw the brush through her hair.
Tonight? I asked.
She nodded. Six o’clock.
I don’t think you’re supposed to know exactly when.
I’m not supposed to be giving birth to rabbits, either. I can do whatever I want. Now go make sure everyone knows.
She looked at me and sighed in a way I knew she had learned from a soap. Take one of the nickels from the box, she said, go down to the Sawtooth, order a cup of coffee, and tell Ingrid I’m having pains. Then answer all her questions. There’ll be a crowd here by five.
And so there was. Half the town crowded into the kitchen, leaning against counters and chairs and slipping more dimes into the box whenever my mother looked at them, squeezed out into the narrow hallway and leaned against the walls, making bashful conversation, and dribbled out onto the porch, the front steps, the kicked-apart lawn, where they sprawled out on the grass and got as good a view as they could find of Sabbath’s window. For so many people they were strangely quiet: they had nothing to prove to each other, nothing even to say. They were all here for the same reason. They were all here to see the miracle girl.
Meanwhile, I was in the bathroom with Sabbath while she lay in the tub and put her dead babies in. I wasn’t watching—I was concentrating on the door—but I could hear the sound of it, the swallowing, losting of air.
The next one, she said.
The others were in the sink, soaking in warm water, on the theory—Sabbath’s—that it would make them softer. I reached up without looking and handed one to her.
You want to hear a joke? she asked.
What do you call a Roman soldier with a hair between his teeth?
Ha, I said, after too long a pause. I hoisted myself up and leaned against the lip of the tub. She had just gotten the second rabbit in and did not look at all different than she had before, like a girl who was filled with things she shouldn’t be filled with. She had taken off my mother’s nightgown, and her hair fell over her breasts like Eve in the illustrated Bible or Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. I saw her naked all the time—showering in gym class or skinny dipping in the quarry in summer, or when she would come over for a hot bath and make me sit and talk to her while she washed—but it seemed like she had changed since the last time I saw her this way, was even closer to grown up, and even farther from me.
You want to hear another? she asked, but she didn’t wait for an answer. Okay, she said. I like this one: What do you call that useless piece of skin around a cunt?
She smiled faint as an old photo, which I had learned looked so serious because back then no one could smile and mean it long enough to show up on film.
A woman, she said.
What? I think it’s funny.
Where’d you hear it?
I don’t know. My brothers. One of my brothers.
It’s a joke, Finn. Give me the next one.
I gave it to her.
So, she said, are you having fun yet?
It’s going even better than I thought it would, you know. I mean, I knew it would be like this someday, but I thought I’d have to do a lot more work to get here.
I wouldn’t really call it work, I said.
Then you do it.
I looked at her stomach: flat as a sheet of paper, a desk, a movie screen. Can you fit the last one in? I asked.
Well, I better.
I handed it to her. Why?
I can’t just do the same thing over again. I already had three.
You think they’ll stop believing?
No. They know it’s real. It just has to get more and more real every time.
How’re you gonna manage that?
She bared her teeth and pulled herself open wide. Weren’t you listening to the plan, Finnie? That’s the best part. I do this good a couple more times, I can stop forever. I’ll retire.
Like Princess Grace.
She grunted as she pushed the rabbit home, and then sighed as if she had just released something, instead of taking it inside.
The summer before, Jack Jespersson had set up a drive-in screen on his farm, and everyone had come on Saturday nights to watch the movies he played. It had been ten years since our regular movie theater had gone out of business, and even the old Bible movies and Westerns seemed new. We watched The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra and The King and I, and when To Catch a Thief played and Sabbath’s mother wouldn’t let her go she came over to my house and listened to the dialogue on my radio. She already knew the movie by heart. The cat has a new kitten, she said as she flopped onto my bed, and Look, John. Hold them. Diamonds… The only thing in the world you can’t resist. Ever had a better offer in your whole life?
Now, Sabbath had done Jack Jespersson one better. My mother had strung up a guard rope around the bed while Sabbath and I were in the bathroom, made fake silk sashes from robes and twisted bedsheet, and now all the people that had crowded into Jespersson’s field last summer were now crammed in behind them, coyly reaching over the barrier to pick at Sabbath’s breath, Sabbath’s smell, Sabbath’s pain.
I crouched beside her while she lay in bed, her nightgown back on but hiked up to her waist, the sheets yanked down, hiding nothing. She had washed her pubes after she put the rabbits in, and they lay coiled tight as muscle, bright even against the paleness of her skin. She didn’t touch herself down there, didn’t spread herself open, didn’t even look. She closed her eyes and cried, Oh, help me, help me, help me, Finn, and so I helped her. I helped her by holding her hair back and stroking her forehead and not going anywhere near the rabbits, because, she had told me, there had to be no doubt that she was doing it on her own, that they were coming from inside her and nowhere else—that they were hers.
She didn’t watch, but I did. I saw it all clearer than I did the last time, because I was just watching, and because I had seen it before. Was it like the last time? The first rabbit was smaller than before, seemed smaller even than before Sabbath had put it in, its fur and ears stuck so close to the skin to become part of it, its paws and powerful hind legs balled inward. It was small enough that she didn’t have to do much to push it out—the smallest tensing of her stomach and it slid onto the perfect white sheet beneath her, leaving behind it the faintest pink trace of blood. The claws must have caught her, I thought, even though she killed them to keep them from hurting her, gnawing through her or kicking their way free. Its eyes were closed, but I knew as I picked it up and held it out for the crowd to see that it was warm enough to seem alive to their dumb hands.
They were leaning against the sashes and sheets, people I had known since I was born, people whose names I had forgotten but whose faces I knew like the letters of the alphabet. Mrs. Violet who ran the dress shop was standing in the corner, mouth open and fingers working into the nap of my mother’s curtains. Miss Lynch, our typing teacher, was behind her, a slip of gray hair reaching out from underneath the black wig she always wore. Hank Jespersson was there again, his pale blue uniform shirt crisp, and all his little deputies arrayed behind him. Our gym teacher was there, and the pastor and his family, and Press Warren, the richest man in town, trying to look like he had just wandered in on his lunch break.
At the front of the crowd, crouched down on the floor, was a little girl I didn’t recognize, probably from the trailers up on Carrier Row. Her arms were locked around her knees and she was looking not at the rabbit but at Sabbath, like she knew there was some trick to it but couldn’t quite figure it out. Her hair was blond, but colorlessly pale, not like Sabbath’s, which was crucifix-bright, and she was resting her chin on her knees, her jaw clenched in concentration. I knelt before her, the rabbit in my hand, and offered it to her.
Here, I said. Look at it. Touch it. Feel it. Then pass it along.
She unfolded her legs and arranged her arms into a cradle, so carefully I almost wanted to remind her that the thing I was about to give her couldn’t be hurt.
I was following my instructions, but I was too slow. Behind me, Sabbath had begun to cry again. The next one was coming. The crowd was waiting. I got up and went back to Sabbath’s side.
Be brave, I said, and I knew that everyone in the crowd was thinking the same thing. I bent over and kissed her on the forehead, tasted her animal sweat, and looked at her face as I came away. For a second, even I believed it was true.
The next morning Doctor North came to examine Sabbath, but mostly he examined her babies. One of them had its skin torn off after she put it up there—by the muscles pushing, contracting, expanding, and whatever else they did when she looked so in pain—and the pelt came out a few minutes after the body, like a glove for a hand. The doctor measured both and made careful notes in his ledger, some of which I saw: Feet distinctly catlike. Small amounts of stool in rectum. Eyes closed. Nails quite sharp. Teeth normal. He went on for pages about the rabbits, but hardly looked at Sabbath at all. After he left, she sat in bed smiling and filing her nails. It smells good in here, she said.
It’s not full of dead rabbits is why.
It will be soon.
I was thinking tonight.
Jesus, I said. What’s the hurry?
The doctor was convinced. If anyone else was left, they’ll follow him.
He really believed you?
He’s older than God. Why wouldn’t he?
I had been thinking to myself that he wouldn’t believe her for about the same reason. I don’t know, I said.
Well, you can think about it on your way to the bunny lady’s. Better get a few day’s worth. I feel a big one coming on.
From then on, there was a show once a night and twice on Sundays. I delivered Sabbath’s babies, passed them around, and then served coffee downstairs and listened to the talk. The theory most people believed was that Sabbath—slut that she was—had gotten pregnant, and was scared by a rabbit, or ate raw rabbit meat, or killed a rabbit somehow, and after that kept giving birth to its babies. To them, she had been a common slut, but now she was something else—had been chosen. The only problem was that no one could figure out for what.
It didn’t take long for me to stop going to the bunny lady’s house, but it took a little longer for me to get good at catching rabbits. I found out that the best time was early morning, when the air was the blue of cigarette smoke and TV glow; and people, though wakeful, stayed inside. I went up Sparrowrise, past the bunny lady’s house, up to where the ground finally leveled off and the sun had nothing to hide behind when it arrived. I lay still as the dead until a kit came to sniff at me, and then I lay still a little longer, just to see if it would decide that I had nothing for it, and wander away. It never did.
Sometimes, late at night, Sabbath would crawl into bed beside me—my mother passed out on the couch downstairs—and talk about all the things we would do with the money, once this was over.
We can leave town, she said.
After we graduate?
Before. It doesn’t matter.
Los Angeles. Alaska. Monaco. Wherever we want.
There probably isn’t that much in those boxes.
It doesn’t matter, she said. It’s enough.
It might have just been enough, I thought, that she didn’t have to be the town slut anymore, even though I had never seen her do a slut thing—she was a Harder girl and there were no other Harder girls to look down on, and that was enough. When she left town now she would be the girl who gave births to rabbits, the mystery no one knew well enough.
We’ll go to college, I said.
We’ll buy horses, she said, and go wherever we want on them.
We’ll never eat rabbits again.
Nearly every day Sabbath asked for the next batch of rabbits to be a little bigger and stronger than the last, and nearly every day she seemed a little smaller and weaker. Her hair began to fall out from how much she brushed it, and looked against the dome of her forehead like the yellowing of something long dead. I could see all the bones in her shoulders, and then in her chest. When she climbed into bed beside me her hips pressed into my back like a metal trap, and I let myself fall into her, and waited for the teeth to snap shut.