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YEAR OF THE RABBIT by Lisa Meltzer Penn

FEBRUARY 1999

At the inner edge of San Francisco’s Richmond district, an eye winks open from the fog. The eye surveys the streets and avenues below, pausing on a house with an old van stalled in the driveway and weedy patch of fenced yard out back. One could say the plot of land was unloved. But Earth prefers other forms of love, like fire and rain and roots, like worms tunneling earth through their elastic bodies. And fences mean nothing to the worms as they go about their silent and unseen business.

The peephole shifts ever so slightly to the next yard where a black Labrador retriever guards a crop of dark, leafy collards. A man stands over the dog. “Don’t be lettin’ no raccoons or Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, or Peter hop in and pilfer my collards,” Mr. Jefferson says. “You’ve got a job to do. Don’t forget.”

The retriever barks in reply, a sound from deep in its throat. On occasion, it digs up the collards itself and is soundly thwacked. Otherwise, it is a regular Farmer McGregor, seven years old and in the prime of life.

“Jeffer-son,” calls a voice from inside. “Come on in. You’ll be late for work!”

Not even Magnolia Jefferson calls her husband by his first name. She cooks up a daily pot of grits and collards for his breakfast before greeting her own crop of little children dropped off each morning. “Magnolia’s Daycare” reads the sign over the door. They play in the tiny, gated front garden adorned with toy cars and balls, not out back where the dog stands guard over the rows of vegetables.

If a child in her charge dares to misbehave, for instance making a break for the corner on a Big Wheel, or God forbid, fighting with another child, Magnolia positions the offender on the front porch directly in her line of vision and stares him or her down. “Now you have to look at my ugly, black mug until I say you can stop,” she’ll say. “No, no, anything but that!” the child will scream. But they all obey, staring into her eyes until she lets them go. They respect her. When they grow into middle- and high-school students, they will come back in the afternoons to do their homework on the steps.

Magnolia ladles breakfast into a bowl for Jefferson and sighs. Rollo Lee, who was raised next door, might have benefited from staring into Magnolia’s mug. Rollo, now a young man, attracts the wrong element. He’s been moved into the basement in-law unit of his house, and his older sister, Jade, rents out the upper floors to make ends meet. He’s Jade’s responsibility now.

“I sure do miss Mr. and Mrs. Lee,” Magnolia says aloud, looking out into the Lees’ yard.

Rollo doesn’t venture into the yard much, or go anywhere most days. Not since his van stopped running. But it’s Chinese New Year, and his ne’er-do-well friends have shown up at the narrow door below the stairs carrying longevity noodles, a case of Tsingtao, and a squirming burlap sack.

The guy holding the sack has a Mickey Mouse tattoo on his wrist. When Rollo opens the door, the guy reaches into the sack and pulls out a rabbit by its long ears. “Surprise!” he says, and the rabbit’s hind legs kick at air. He laughs. “Five of them for Year of the Rabbit.”

When Rollo was a kid, he played magician. But these rabbits did not come to be pulled out of hats. And they are not exactly guests of honor, even if this is supposed to be their year.

“For the frying pan,” says Mickey Mouse.

The rabbit is a soft beigey-gray color. Rollo looks deep into its beady eyes and the rabbit looks back. “Okay, bring them in,” he says. “But they’re not for dinner. Jade cooked me a whole chicken. I’ll share it with you guys.” So, the rabbits come to the house for one purpose, but are saved from the frying pan for another fate.

* * *

MARCH

The moving men’s T-shirts are emblazoned with a logo of a giant balancing a truck on one finger. The men carry furniture and a procession of boxes up the stairs of the Lees’ house. The newest renters, newlyweds Dinah and Nathan Levin, are just out of the proverbial frying pan themselves, having escaped a terror of a landlady at their last digs.

As the bride carries a suitcase past the old van, an inquisitive, long-whiskered gray nose pokes out the driver’s side window.

The bride nearly jumps out of her shoes, and the groom catches her. “Whoa, Nellie,” he says.

She peers into the furry face. “What is that?”

Two paws are positioned at ten and two o’clock on the steering wheel. A big rabbit looks back at her while four others hop around the back of the van. The soft-hearted Lee boy has converted the vehicle into temporary housing for the New Year’s rabbits.

When Dinah moved into Nathan’s last place before their engagement, his landlady was nice enough at first. But soon she took to dialing their number late at night.

Dinah would pick up the phone.

“What do you think you’re doing there?” the voice on the other end would demand. “I didn’t rent to you! Leave my house or I’ll kill you!”

Startled, Dinah would slam the phone down. But it would ring again and again. The landlady would shout into the answering machine, leaving foul messages the couple saved for their lawyer.

“You can’t really be afraid of her,” the police officer said, taking the report. “She’s a little old lady.”

“She might look it,” Dinah said, “but she’s either crazy or evil or both. I don’t know what she’ll do!”

Dinah stayed awake at night, waiting for the next call, and checked every time she left the flat to make sure no one was hiding in the greenery. She and Nathan vowed to find a new place right after they got married.

Now she slides her feet back into their shoes and follows the movers up the stairs. A Chinese calendar hangs from a nail in the kitchen, the only reminder of the last tenants. The calendar page is still on February and illustrates the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac in a colorful circle from Rat to Ox to Tiger to Rabbit, then Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig, with a brief description of each in fancy gold ink.

“Like the twelve tribes of Israel,” her husband says. He jabs his finger at Rabbit in the three o’clock position. “Hey, Dinah, look, you’re a Rabbit. It’s your year.”

She groans. “Enough rabbits! Besides, I’m nineteen sixty-four. Dragon, same as you.”

“Nope. The Chinese year won’t change from Rabbit to Dragon until next February, a couple of weeks after your birthday.”

She reads the small print. She falls between the cracks of the regular and the Chinese New Year’s. Not a Dragon after all.

Nate reads off the calendar, “‘Intrepid Rabbit managed to hop from stone to stone in the river and get some help from Dragon to finish the race and make it onto the list of twelve animals.’ Typical rabbit, calmly sizing up the situation and making it work with a dose of good luck.”

“Kind of a demotion, though, isn’t it?” Dinah says. “A Dragon to a Rabbit?”

“Hmmm,” Nate says, scanning the calendar page. “Maybe not. ‘Rabbit strengths: even-tempered, gentle, faithful, compassionate, and clever.’”

“Those aren’t so bad,” Dinah says. “I guess I never really felt like a Dragon anyway.”

“Terrific! Now you’re a newlywed, a Levin, a Capricorn, and a Rabbit. So many new things!”

“And clever and lucky,” the bride adds. “Don’t forget that.” She flips the calendar page to March, and they get to unpacking.

* * *

APRIL

When the five rabbits outgrow their holding pen in the driveway, Rollo Lee sets them loose in the backyard. “They’re all boys,” Mickey Mouse reminds him. “They told me when I got them. So don’t worry.”

A light breeze riffles by and blows the fog about. The rabbit last seen at the wheel of the van stretches up on its powerful hind legs. It’s two feet tall now. The rabbit twitches its whiskers. The smells of vegetables and dog hair tickle its nose. The fine hairs on its back shift in the breeze in alternating shades of gray and beige. A bay, they call that type at Animal Control.

The rabbits are very hungry and nibble at everything they can find in their new patch of yard: the overgrown hedge grass, the clover and dandelions, and those tiny white daisies that crop up in clusters everywhere in San Francisco. The rabbits strip the bark from the tree trunks as high as they can reach with their long teeth. They lick the droplets of water the fog deposits on the clover and fences and siding of the house.

The bay rabbit lowers its forelegs and hops a few feet. Life is good. Out of the frying pan, out of the van, the five rabbits have a chance for a new life, free for the taking.

* * *

MAY

Like magic, the five purportedly male rabbits begin to reproduce. Someone was mistaken, or was pulling a leg. Or else a lucky rabbit’s foot kicked a hole in Mickey Mouse’s theory, the way the blue sky keeps trying to punch a hole in the fog layer.

One day, the hapless Rollo Lee tags along with his friends to the corner market. When he slips a candy bar and several packages of extra-strength Sudafed inside his jacket pocket, he is promptly arrested for shoplifting. And then the police come by with a search warrant.

Magnolia Jefferson clucks her tongue when she hears the news. “A crying shame,” she says to her husband as he labors over his collards and carrots. “Those friends of his taking advantage. Did you hear? They were cooking up concoctions and selling drugs out of his little apartment. I knew something wasn’t right. In the same house where he grew up! His folks will be turning over in their graves.”

Jefferson shakes his head.

Rollo and one of the friends go to jail.

When someone knocks on the door of the main house. Dinah puts her eye to the peephole. It’s the Mickey Mouse tattoo guy.

When he says he needs to cut through their house to collect something from the basement apartment, she opens her door an inch with the chain on and glares at him, as good as Magnolia Jefferson could glare. “Nuh-uh,” she says. “No way.”

The guy takes a step back. “It’s okay, really. I’ll leave through the side after.”

Dinah grips the doorknob, her jaw set. “You will not cut through my house.”

“Oh.” His face falls. “Sorry. I won’t bother you again.”

Afterwards, she stares at the empty porch. The guy’s in his early twenties, as young as her kid brother, who also likes Mickey Mouse. She wants to be safe. She wants to be a newlywed and forget the past year’s nasty business with the crazy landlady.

A few days later, a scratching sound comes from below. Dinah goes down the outside steps and knocks on Rollo’s back door. But nobody answers. There’s a small movement in the bushes. When she looks closer, she sees the bay rabbit studying her from the fence line.

* * *

JUNE

By the time Dinah calls Animal Control, the basement apartment has been vacant for a month. During that time, the five rabbits have multiplied to twenty-five.

“What should we do?” she pleads into the phone from the back landing as brown, silver, white, and various shades of dappled bunnies tear out grass and daisies by their roots.

“Give them carrots but not carrot tops,” a woman from Animal Control cautions over the phone. “Not for the babies. And no iceberg lettuce.”

“I meant, can’t you come get them? They’re not ours.”

“Do you live there?”

“Yes.”

“Is it your yard?”

“Yes, but we’re renters. The guy downstairs put them there.”

“Good, so he can take care of them.”

“Not really. He’s in jail.”

Dinah hears a sigh on the other end of the phone. “Then they’re yours. You’re the responsible party now. Or you can call your landlord. But one of your other neighbors will have to complain before we come out.”

“Why would the neighbors complain?”

“Trust me. It will happen.”

* * *

JULY

The smell of succulent greens on the other side of the fence is too much for little bunnies to resist. The new Flopsys, Mopsys, Cottontails, and Peters are small enough to get through the cracks between the boards. Several of them tunnel underneath, straight into the jaws of the black Lab. What the dog doesn’t snap up in the daytime, the neighborhood cats and raccoons tear to pieces in the dark of night. The cats leap the fence when the black Lab is off duty. They carry away the bunnies’ little feet and little heads and red strings of guts in their mouths. They drop the remnants as offerings on nearby driveways and porches.

A cheerful woman from Animal Control finally comes out to set humane traps in the yard. “Let’s see if we can catch some bunnies and find them their forever homes.”

A few of the Flopsys and Mopsys are captured. Animal Control comes back whenever Dinah and Nathan report a rabbit in a trap. By this time, there is almost nothing left of the yard to eat, and the summer fog that blows across the neighborhood is chilling. Worms hum through the soil. Dirt nestles against the houses. The rabbits burrow for warmth. To the bigger ones, who are not so particular, the concrete foundation is starting to look like good eating. Their teeth still have to be ground down, lest they grow into deformed tusks. They dig with abandon and gnaw at the foundation, heedless of the impact to their bellies.

One morning, early, the woman from Animal Control reaches into a trap. The brown and white rabbit that wandered in for a juicy carrot the night before lies stiffly on the bottom. It’s one of the original five. It needed water to quench the insatiable thirst from the crumbled bits of concrete in its belly. It needed cover for warmth. The woman holds the limp creature close to her chest, her long ponytail brushing the rabbit’s silky ears. She strokes its head. “They’re cute even when they’re dead,” she coos.

One way or another, before long, all the rabbits are gone. They are caught in traps; they are eaten by other animals. If they are lucky, they escape through fences. There is nothing left for them, and nothing left of them, in the Lees’ yard.

* * *

AUGUST

Jade Lee parks her VW Bug behind a tow truck. Dinah comes outside. The ruined van is being hooked onto the ball of the truck.

“Look at that real truck,” a little girl declares from Magnolia’s play yard. “I’m gonna drive one of those someday.”

Dinah turns to look at the little girl. “Good for you,” she says.

After Jade Lee signs the paperwork, the tow truck driver pulls the van down the street and around the corner out of sight.

A fuzzy van-size rectangle remains in the driveway like the outline of a body. Jade scuffs her foot along its edge. “When my brother gets out of jail, he’ll be going to a group home,” she says.

“Bless your heart,” Magnolia Jefferson says from her yard. “He got mixed up with the wrong folks.”

Dinah crosses her arms. “What about the drug den in the basement?”

Jade sighs, her crow-black hair falling over her face. “It will be taken care of.”

Dinah’s face twists a little. “I get it. I have a brother, too.” She leans over and gives Jade a hug. “Thank you.”

“Mmm, hmmm,” says Magnolia and nods her approval.

* * *

SEPTEMBER

A demolition crew arrives and takes the basement apartment down to the studs. After they haul the mess away, a renovation crew gets to work.

The Levins’ lawyer finishes settling the claim against the crazy landlady from the old place. And when a long, official-looking envelope arrives with the settlement check exactly a month before Halloween, the couple decides to mark the occasion with a party.

Dinah stands on the back stoop and surveys the yard. The patch has been transformed from overgrown and weedy to a barren moonscape. It’s hard not to admire the rabbits’ industriousness. They did a very thorough job. Jade has promised to replant after the downstairs apartment renovation is complete. But for now, it seems a shame to waste all the rabbits’ hard work.

* * *

OCTOBER

On All Hallows Eve and the days leading up to it, the lines blur between living and dead, good and evil, sacred and profane. While Dinah rummages for Halloween decorations, she pulls an old broomstick out of the utility closet, the worn bristles like a bad hairdo. She props it up, and almost as an afterthought, clothes it in a dress from the giveaway pile. She tops it with a black witch’s hat, carries her creation out back, and plants it in the center of the barren yard.

Before the party guests arrive, Dinah picks up a dead branch from the ground and scratches a wide circle in the dirt around the broomstick. A witch in a circle in a moonscape. With the circle complete, she tosses the branch against the fence. The Jeffersons’ black Lab barks from the other side. Dinah recites a line from the kitchen calendar: “I eschew aggression and violence, particularly in public situations. I aim to maintain tranquility and balance at all times.” She giggles.

Nate is Ali Baba in an embroidered vest with a shirt open to his chest and a golden turban atop his head. Dinah is a skimpily clad saloon girl in red and black stripes with a feather hairpiece, boa, and fishnet opera gloves. Their friends show up in costume too. No one is him or herself tonight. Even Dinah’s intractable cousin, who swore she wouldn’t dress up, has transformed into a witch with her own pointy black hat.

It’s Dinah’s first time hiring caterers. She checks the kitchen between rounds of appetizers and is drawn to the back stoop. The fog has vanished and the sky is clear and black. A big moon rises over the abandoned yard, so low she could almost run to it. The moon’s glowing face does not reveal the familiar countenance of the man in the moon but a blue-gray shadow resembling a rabbit. “More rabbits?” Dinah says aloud. The moon rabbit is leaning forward like it’s grinding something between its teeth, a substance that might sprinkle down onto their yard and the broomstick witch. Dinah shuts her eyes, but when she opens them, the moon rabbit is still there. “Even the moon is in disguise tonight,” she says.

“It’s a rabbit moon,” a caterer calls from the kitchen.

“You saw it too?”

The caterer laughs. “It says so right on your calendar.”

Everything is different tonight, as if the patch of yard is inviting something new, one moonscape to another. Though it’s cool out, heat radiates from the bare skin of Dinah’s shoulders.

She cocks an ear over her red-and-black feather boa. It might be the party punch taking effect, but the lunar rabbit seems to bend close to whisper, “You’re a rabbit like me. Here is your image for all to see.” Dinah smiles at the moon and raises her punch cup in a toast. She goes back in and invites the costumed guests to the yard.

When everyone is gathered, she instructs them to link hands around the dirt circle. Dinah begins chanting a song from deep in her gut. “Mother, I feel you under my feet. Mother, I feel your heart beat.” Soon everyone is chanting and dancing and circling the broomstick witch while one of the guests beats a rhythm on a drum.

Dinah produces a disposable lighter from within her sequined costume. She crosses to inside the dirt circle and crouches at the base of the broomstick. The lighter sparks once, twice. The third try yields a thin line of flame that licks at the hem of the witch’s dress. The flame grows bolder and leaps upward, causing the broomstick witch to quiver with false life.

The black Lab barks again, and the neighborhood cats and raccoons pause their nighttime explorations, slitted eyes glittering. When the chanting reaches a crescendo, Dinah sucks in a breath and shouts, “Now!” And the flaming broomstick witch falls backward, landing with a thud on the ground barely within the boundary of the dirt circle.

The Halloween guests raise their joined hands and cheer as the fire burns itself out.

“How did you do that?” Dinah’s cousin asks. “Did you pull a string or something?”

Dinah watches the glowing embers die. “No string. It was time. Couldn’t you feel it?”

“That was your crazy old landlady, right?” a friend asks.

Dinah shudders. “No, it wasn’t her. Not exactly.” The night is about reclaiming tranquility and balance, no matter what it looks like. “Good riddance to the negative energy. That goes to the fire.”

After the guests leave, Dinah and Nate go to their bedroom at the top of the house and change out of their costumes. Everything old has burned away. Rollo is gone, his apartment transformed. The lucky rabbits have sprung off. The old van is hollowed out in a junk yard, disassembled for parts. Even the broomstick witch has dissipated into the night. Dinah looks out the window at the yard below. All is quiet.

* * *

NOVEMBER

The grass is growing back after the season’s first rain. Jade Lee, true to her word, comes by to plant honeysuckle along the fence. “My mom used to love honeysuckle.” She points out a dusty planter box along the side of the yard. “She was a real gardener. She didn’t speak much English, but she and Mr. Jefferson used to compare plants. They both brought natives with them from their first homes. You can grow whatever you like.”

“I think I will,” Dinah says. “My parents are coming for a visit soon. My mom can help.”

Looking at the yard and the still-black circle of dirt in the middle, Dinah starts to feel a tiny bit nauseated. The night of the party, her Ali Baba peeled the fishnet gloves from her arms, unzipped the slick and shiny striped dress with a swish under the rabbit moon.

She buys a pregnancy kit at the drugstore. When Nate gets home, they open the package and follow instructions. After a few minutes, the results are confirmed on the plastic test stick. A little blue window winks open at the top like a break in the fog. She lays her hand on her belly. A tight little knot is already growing inside her. Nate hoots and wraps her in a hug. “This is great!” he says.

Dinah breaks free and runs downstairs to the back garden. For a strange moment, a shimmering vision hovers in the air: a beige-gray rabbit birthing a litter of bunnies.

“But it’s so soon,” she says. “Not even a year since we got married.”

Nate touches her shoulder. “Well, you said you didn’t want to wait too long.”

Dinah takes a deep breath. “That’s true.” She places Nate’s hand over her still-flat belly. “Do you feel anything?”

“Something’s in there,” Nate says.

Dinah’s face twitches. “How can I be nauseated and starving at the same time?”

In the kitchen she devours two grilled cheese sandwiches, then she and Nate toss a big salad in the wooden bowl that was one of their wedding presents. Lettuces, radishes, avocado, and some carrots from Mr. Jefferson’s garden. Just how the rabbits would have liked it. Maybe, like the rabbits, she needs to keep eating everything in sight.

* * *

DECEMBER

Dinah flips the calendar page one last time for 1999, for the century, and for the millennium, though Rabbit won’t roll over to Dragon until February. Their little bunny will be born a Dragon like its father. That is, if all the numbers on all the clocks and computers of the world don’t reset to zero, and the world doesn’t roll over and end with Y2K. But Rabbit is still a lucky sign and will get them there.

Dinah’s mother helps her plant daffodil bulbs in the yard, then pulls a faded envelope from her purse. The envelope bears the wavy ink stamp of a long-ago postmark.

“Read this,” she says.

“What is it?”

“Open it up.”

It takes Dinah few minutes to decipher the slanted, old-fashioned handwriting.

Dear Dr. Siegelman,

This letter is to affirm the results of your lovely wife’s hCG test. After her urine was injected into a juvenile rabbit and the sufficient 72 hours had passed, I personally examined the ovaries. They had swollen the characteristic amount with a series of recognizable red dots. I can positively verify the results without hesitation.

Best wishes to you and your wife.

Dr. Herbert Miller

Dr. Siegelman was Dinah’s mother’s father, her grandfather. She reads the letter again. “Is this the rabbit test?” she asks. “With an actual live rabbit?”

Her mother nods.

“When you were pregnant with me?”

“Look at the date.”

“Grandma?” Dinah says. “Pregnant with you?” The letter contained good news, though apparently not so good for the rabbit. “So, the rabbit died?”

Her mother shrugs. “It was cut open. They all were. That was part of the test back then. They stopped doing it that way before you came along.”

* * *

JANUARY 2000

When the calendar turns again, to a new century and a new millennium, lo and behold, the world keeps turning too. And before you can blink, the Year of the Rabbit is coming to a close.

But before it’s over, the intrepid bay rabbit arrives at a final destination. Not the moon, but a new home in the Outer Richmond near the ocean, where a lucky little boy adopts it as a pet. The boy feeds the rabbit a steady stream of leafy greens, carrots, and alfalfa, and an endless supply of water from a bottle attached to the side of a roomy hutch. He holds the rabbit’s lucky foot in his small hand. And soon, like magic, the bay rabbit brings forth a final litter of kits. The kits go to new homes, and then it’s just the bay rabbit and the boy. On nice days, the bay goes into the yard and stands on hind legs, nose twitching to the sky. Sea breezes flow across, bringing scents of everything beyond the yard. Worms chug through the soil, poking their heads through the mantle on rainy days and cuddling up to other worms to transmit all they’ve learned about the earth.

And the eye in the sky sweeps over the boy’s house in its foggy, free-wheeling passage. Way above the fog, the rabbit on the moon is still grinding away like a pestle, mixing an elixir of life to sustain future generations. The moon rabbit winks, and the bay rabbit in the new forever yard twitches its long whiskers in response. Then the bay hops through the green grass and over to the boy, who scoops up his rabbit and hugs it close.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Lisa Meltzer Penn writes layered, lyrical fiction that explores the ways landscapes, both exterior and interior, seduce us. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in multiple Fault Zone anthologies, Travelers Tales: Spain and other literary publications, won awards, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her novel The Siren Dialogues, literary fiction with a twist of magical realism, is complete and ready for publication.

Lisa is founding editor of the Fault Zone anthology series for the California Writers Club San Francisco Peninsula branch, where she is Immediate Past President, active on the board, and 2013 recipient of the prestigious Louise Boggess Award. A former New York editor of bestselling middle grade and young adult fiction, Lisa is known for digging into the bones of a story to bring out the best in it. She lives by the San Francisco Bay with her family and is at work on fiction and memoir projects. Follow her blog Lisa Melts Her Pen [1] and find out more at: https://lisameltzerpenn.com/ [2]

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Year of the Rabbit”:

Author Lisa Meltzer Penn has crafted a delightful story whose interesting characters catch our attention immediately. From there the story pulls us along with a solidly crafted theme that smoothly takes us from one story point to the next, deftly blending all of its elements together.

And we’re not disappointed when the story comes full circle in a perfect ending that nicely caps the whole piece. This is how good stories are written and what we look for in the pieces we choose to publish.